It is not unusual for club or AAU sports programs to assist or waive the fees of student athletes who cannot afford to pay what is sometimes thousands of dollars to participate.
But the director of basketball operations for Swoosh, a Utah AAU team for high-school-age boys, gave the mother of one prospective player $1,500 cash to cover that fee.
The boy's mother, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that while she and Rod Smith discussed the fact that she couldn't afford club basketball fees, she had no idea the envelope he handed her during the conversation contained cash. Smith said he told her there was money in the envelope when he gave it to her.
"I told her what was in there," Smith said. "I told her it's $1,500 in cash; be careful."
The mother, however, said she discovered the envelope contained cash after she and her son returned home from a dinner meeting with Smith.
"I opened the envelope and there was a letter in there," she said. "There was another envelope with my name on the outside. I opened it and said, 'Whoa, you're kidding me!' I was just as shocked as everybody else.... Who in their right mind would give someone $1,500 in cash? I was totally blown away."
She said she expected a letter, a legal document or some kind of voucher that would guarantee her son's fees would be paid if he chose to play with Smith's club, the Swoosh.
Smith said he gave the family the money because he wanted them to know he was committed to helping the boy play AAU basketball this season after he'd invited the boy to play last year and then decided against having a team. Smith, who also has a son on the team, told the Deseret Morning News that he only meant to help a teen who couldn't otherwise afford to play AAU basketball. He said club teams often ask members of the community to help these players pay fees or they waive them.
"I've personally assisted many families," he said. "We do it because we want to help the kids."
Smith also pointed to the letter contained in the envelope with the money, which explained that the money was to be used to cover the boy's fees with Swoosh.
"We will be collecting the $1,500 back during our first week of practice in early March," Smith wrote to the boy's mom. The letter also stated that if Smith failed to organize a team, the boy could use that money to pay participation fees with another club.
What the letter didn't contemplate was what should happen to the money if the boy opted to play with another AAU team, even if Swoosh was a viable option. And that is the situation the family found itself in last week. The boy's mother said she was confused about what she should do and was afraid that making the wrong decisions with the cash would jeopardize her son's amateur status.
"I didn't know what to do," she said. She hid the money and said nothing to anyone until her son decided to tell a teammate's parents. They told her to return the money and tell the boy's high school coach. His high school coach made a phone call to another businessman affiliated with Swoosh and told him they needed to come and get the money.
"I told them I didn't think it was appropriate," the coach said. "Whether he meant it greasy or dirty, it looked that way."
The high school coach said he believes Smith was actually trying to help the boy, but said handing any kind of payment to a family "is not correct."
"I don't think there should have been any money given to the kid up front," he said.
The prep coach acknowledged that AAU and club programs often waive the fees or reduce them for players who can't pay, especially for those who are very talented.
"I don't get involved with who (clubs) make pay and who they don't make pay," he said. "As a purist, I'd like to think any kid who can't pay can play."
The high school coach said the boy's family has asked a friend, who is also an attorney, to help them return the money since the boy does not plan to play for Swoosh.
Smith contends he did nothing wrong.
"We didn't give a kid cash," said Smith. "We gave (his mother) the money to pay the fee. That is a big difference.... Nothing was done illegal, nothing unethical. I was simply trying to help a family so that the kid could participate in AAU sports."
Smith asked the Deseret Morning News to run this paragraph as explanation for his actions:
"The question has been raised in the public eye whether I did the right thing in giving money to this parent. Some in the bleachers speculate, not knowing all the facts and circumstances, that I did something wrong; or that they would have done it differently. Now that this event has found its way to the press to become publicly reported; in hindsight, I would be foolish not to admit that I would have handled things differently. But my conscience is clear. I have done nothing wrong or unethical. I was acting in good faith, respectful of this parent's needs and wishes. There was no ambiguity. I was acting in her behalf to provide the best opportunity possible for her son at the expense of our organization."
In checking with the Utah High School Activities Association and the NCAA, if indeed the family used the money to pay the fees associated with a club program, there is likely no violation, and individual college compliance officers don't have jurisdiction over athletes not competing for their institutions.
Still, Smith's actions disturb some who oversee prep and AAU sports in Utah.
"Why would you give him money to pay his fees when he's not even signed up for the team?" asked UHSAA attorney Mark Van Wagoner. "You don't give someone scholarship money before they're enrolled in school."
Van Wagoner said he understands why the boy and his mother held onto the money until they could show they didn't solicit it and that they had indeed returned it.
Dan Cowan, the president of the AAU in Utah, said that he would be strongly opposed to coaches giving players money to cover participation fees, although he knows many clubs have a process players go through to qualify for help.
"I've never heard of this," Cowan said. "To me, it's everything that's wrong with high school sports.... I absolutely condemn any activity like that, if that's what happened."
Cowan said the emphasis of the AAU organization in Utah is centered around scholastic teams. He also said that Swoosh is not currently a registered AAU program, although that can happen before any AAU tournament. Also, neither Smith nor any of his coaches are registered coaches with AAU, Cowan said. They could register at any time by simply paying the fees.
Smith said organizers were in the process of reviving the program, which has been dormant for the past two years, and planned to register once the season gets under way.
Neil Dastrup, who has a son playing for Smith's Swoosh and helps coach at practices, said he was "caught off guard completely" when the high school coach asked him about it last week.
"Cash is not good," Dastrup said. "If you're going to give someone something, give them a check. There's no reason to hide anything. But I do think Rod's intent was pure.... I think he was trying to show complete commitment that he was going to have a team."
NCAA rules state that whatever advantage is offered to one athlete has to be offered to others. Dastrup said that is never the case.
"It's not offered to everyone," Dastrup said. "There are players that don't pay a dime.... It sounds good on paper, but it's not practiced."
He said this player is good enough that he likely won't pay, wherever he plays.
And despite seeing Smith's decision to give the family the fee in cash as a "procedural goof-up," Dastrup said Smith "didn't intend to hurt anyone."
He said the AAU program is "a great system.... You get to see players like Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett and Mike Bibby ... just down in Las Vegas. You get to see unbelievable talent while they're playing in high school. The program is good and it works. Even though there is an inequity in who pays, it's still wonderful. It's a time in these kids' lives where they're athletic and they're out doing good things. This is a good thing, not a negative."
The high school coach in this case agrees with Dastrup.
"It's by far more positive than negative," he said.As for the family in question, the boy's mother said, "I would just like it to go away."