Article calls into question Harvard recruiting, admissions

In Sunday’s New York Times, Pete Thamel alleges that Tommy Amaker and his staff at Harvard have committed multiple violations of NCAA regulations on contact with recruits and their families. Thamel also charged that Harvard has significantly lowered its admissions requirements for men’s basketball players under Amaker from those of his predecessor, Frank Sullivan — potentially to the point that the league’s Academic Index has been compromised.

According to the article, the month prior to joining Amaker’s staff, Harvard assistant Kenny Blakeney played basketball with prospects Keith Wright and Max Kenyi in Norfolk, VA, and Washington, DC, respectively. Blakeney had not yet signed his employment contract with Harvard, however, the NCAA’s definition of a “representative of the institution’s athletic interests” includes anyone known to the institution’s administration to “be assisting or to have been requested (by the athletics department staff) to assist in the recruitment of prospective student-athletes.”

Additionally, Amaker reportedly encountered the father of future Penn recruit Zack Rosen in a Trenton, NJ, supermarket in July, and discussed his son’s recruitment by Harvard. NCAA regulations require that, in such unplanned meetings, “the staff member or athletics representative does not engage in any dialogue in excess of a greeting and takes appropriate steps to immediately terminate the encounter.”

The allegations of lowered admissions requirements center around three recruits who Thamel claims are “well below index levels that the previous staff members said they had adhered to.” Kenyi and Wright reportedly already have received likely letters and are therefore almost certain to be granted admission in April. However, Frank Ben-Eze reportedly is below the Academic Index minimum of 171 and therefore is yet to receive a likely letter.

Slant: Having these sorts of allegations on the front page of the New York Times Sunday sports page is a definite black eye for Harvard and the Ivy League. The timing also is unfortunate, distracting from Cornell clinching the Ivy League title and becoming the first school to claim an NCAA Tournament bid this March.

The central issue here is the question of whether Harvard has broken the rules either with its recruitment of prospects or its admissions process. Nowhere in Thamel’s piece does the word “cheat” appear, but it’s all over the articles and blog postings that have come out in response to this. So has Harvard really cheated?

As far as the alleged recruiting violations are concerned, the evidence is damning. To buy the explanation that Blakeney didn’t know he would be joining the Harvard staff weeks later when he played basketball with prospects requires an unreasonable suspension of disbelief. The story makes for sensational copy, mostly because it happened in the Ivy League. As journalists who cover big-time college basketball can tell you, the idea of having a future member of a staff get a jumpstart on recruiting prior to going on the payroll didn’t originate with Tommy Amaker. Whether this rises to the level of an NCAA infraction will be a question for that body to decide.

Regardless of the circumstances of the serendipitous encounter with the Rosens in ShopRite, Amaker knows better than to discuss recruiting in that situation. Harvard athletic director Robert Scalise claims that in November he discussed with Amaker “three or four” complaints of incidents on the recruiting trail, calling this “a teaching moment.” But does a man with 10 years of experience as a Division I head coach at Seton Hall and Michigan and another nine years of experience as an assistant at Duke really need instruction on NCAA recruiting regulations? It would be understandable if Amaker’s staff of ACC alumni had stumbled over some of the unique strictures placed on them by the Ivy League, but these are universal NCAA rules. Amaker should be the one conducting the rules seminar.

So, yes, based on the facts as put forward in the article, Amaker and his staff do appear to have operated outside the rules in at least two instances on the recruiting trail. However, given the more sordid recruiting violations out there in major college hoops, these potential infractions seem relatively mild.

Then there’s the matter of whether Harvard has broken Ivy League rules with regard to admissions and the Academic Index, as has been talked about on Ivy League back channels all season. This is considerably more difficult to figure out, because it involves information that is not public. The question of admitting student-athletes under the AI floor won’t really be answered until April when admissions decisions go out.

This spring — like every other spring — Harvard will submit its report of admitted student-athletes to the league office for examination by the league administrators and other schools. If any admitted student-athletes failed to meet the minimum AI threshold, it will then be completely transparent within the league. Now, traditionally in these rare cases, the offending school is given the chance to justify breaching the AI agreement and the other schools decide whether or not to accept that rationale. In this case, however, it is understood that under no circumstances will Harvard be admitting anyone below the AI floor. Assuming this turns out to be correct, there are no grounds for accusations of cheating with regard to admissions decisions.

In the event there is no scandal with admissions, the only possible breach of league rules that could have taken place would be if prospects received likely letters at a time when they were inadmissible due to a sub-minimum AI. Thamel claims in his article that Ben-Eze has yet to receive a likely letter, so we know this has not occurred at this time with him. According to the Times piece, Kenyi and Wright have received their likely letters, so as long as they had such scores when their likely letters were sent out, there’s nothing untoward going on here either.

Therefore, we don’t know if Harvard has violated the spirit or letter of the law of the Ivy League agreement, though at this point it appears unlikely. We’ll have to wait for the school’s report to the league office later this spring to put these academic questions to bed. Now if it turns out that Harvard has, in fact, violated the terms of the AI agreement by accepting student-athletes below the agreed-upon minimum or giving a likely letter to a prospect at a time when he is below the AI minimum, then this is a major scandal in the world of Ivy League men’s basketball and needs to be investigated and addressed.

Provided Harvard is continuing to abide by the rules of the Academic Index minimums and institutional averages, and as long as likely letters were sent only to prospects over the Academic Index floor, all the school has done is prioritize men’s basketball like some of its Ivy League counterparts have been doing for years. Even if the article’s charge of lowered admissions standards is accurate, these standards still would be in line with those in place at all Ivy League schools, so any complaints by other schools’ coaching staffs would ring hollow. This might very well be a case of pettiness on the part of other schools that are simply upset about Harvard shaking up the status quo.

In terms of the impact on this year’s recruiting class, Kenyi and Wright have their likely letters, therefore they should be admitted. Additionally, it can be assumed that Ben-Eze will be offered admission if and only if he raises his AI to at least 171. Harvard might open itself to criticism for attempting to get Ben-Eze academically qualified this late in the process when other schools would have given up long ago. However, this is a two-way street, and if Ben-Eze wants to stay committed and try to gain admission, you can not blame Amaker and his staff for sticking with him.

It’s these three student-athletes who are going to end up being the victims here, having their academic qualifications called into question in the nation’s most prominent newspaper and being linked to articles alleging impropriety. Normally, Ivy coaches encourage committed prospects to wait until they have been admitted or at least received a likely letter to announce their decisions, but in the case of Ben-Eze and possibly Kenyi, an announcement was made before the prospect had reached the AI floor. This succeeded in generating some buzz nationally for the program, but ultimately it could result in a situation where a prospect fails to gain admission and has to de-commit and re-open his recruitment late in the game, when his other scholarship options are gone and most schools will have filled all their available scholarships.

In the end, whatever positive attention the program received from recruiting websites this winter is going to get buried under the mountain of bad press this Times piece has generated, with everyone from Jerry Tarkanian to the Rutgers student paper taking potshots at Harvard over this. Between that and the embarrassment suffered by the prospects, it’s a sad day for Harvard basketball, the Ivy League, and everyone involved.

Jake Wilson

Publisher and Editor-in-Chief, Basketball U.

Jake Wilson wrote 754 posts

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