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February 10, 2004

Big Setback for Top HS Recruit

FROM THE SUNSHINE STATE comes a cloudy recruiting story. Until a month ago Willie Williams was just another anonymous--to most of the public at least--blue chip high school football recruit. To be sure, he is (was?) one of the finest linebackers of the current class, pursued by all of the top national programs. His academic credentials (3.0 GPA and 1070 SAT) made him an especially valuable candidate. Glib, sociable and engaging, Willie seemed to have everything going his way.

After being courted and wooed by many, Willie narrowed his choices to Miami, Florida, Florida State and Auburn. After the whirlwind of recruiting, Williams signed a letter of intent with Miami on Feb. 4. Smiles were smiled, statements were stated, Hurricanes jerseys were worn, camera flashes were flashed, and all bode cheerily well for the future.

But there was a dark cloud wafting down from the north. From Gainesville to be exact. Everything came to a crashing halt when a squad of eight police officers visited Williams’ mother’s home in Pembroke Pines, FL (a Miami suburb) on Friday with a warrant for Willie’s arrest for violating his probation.

Williams’ 18-month probation was for pleading no contest for being accused of stealing $3800 worth of stereo equipment from an electronics store. In addition, he has been arrested on theft-related charges 10 times since he was 14. The University of Miami was unaware of this portion of Williams’ history.

Seeding the dark cloud from Gainesville were two things. First, it is alleged that Mr. Williams was more “social” than the norms of guest visitor behavior during his recruiting visit to Florida State in Gainesville. He was charged with the frontal hugging of an unwilling female “victim,” punching a man at a nightclub and discharging three fire extinguishers in a hotel (presumably with no fire present?).

Second (and much more damaging), Williams had collaborated with Manny Navarro of the Miami Herald on a series of four “tell-all” diary-style accounts of recruiting. Willie naively / honestly described enticement-filled recruiting weekends in which one school seemed to try to outdo the other. From a private jet (just for him) to club-hopping at Miami’s South Beach to all-he-could eat Lobster Tails at $50 a pop (and Willie ordered four servings) to police escorts to unspecified partying with football player hosts; the unworldly 19 year old Williams was most definitely impressed.

Significantly, nothing in the diaries sounded like it blatantly broke any of the sometimes vague NCAA recruiting rules. Indeed, the relevant passage in the NCAA rules states that recruits should be entertained “at a scale comparable to that of normal student life.” Who decides “normal student life.” And how does one decide what “normal student life” is?

Steve Mallonee, the NCAA’s Managing Director-Division I described the Alice In Wonderland it-is-and-it-isn’t vagueness, “We’re in a culture now where unless it’s crystal clear, it gets into the keep-up-with-the-Joneses mentality.”

This would be funny if it wasn’t so sad. Willie Williams crashed-and-burned all alone while surrounded by everyone. It does not sound like anyone was there to warn him.

Paul Lazarus, Williams’ attorney, recapped the affair succinctly, “This is getting blown way out of proportion. Neither is he John Dillinger nor is this the crime of the century.”

Is this denial? Or is it rationality?

(this excerpt was drawn from the Miami Herald of 2-10-04 and the NY Times of 2-10-04; with added commentary from College Athletics Clips)

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