College Basketball Nation: Africa

Coaches will look anywhere for basketball talent.

American scouts already comb the globe for college-ready basketball talent, and this search includes Africa, where aid groups have been helping basketball prospects from countries like war-torn Sudan get a chance to live in America and pursue their athletic dreams. It sounds like a win-win. For some recruits, it is.

The problem is that the current system for finding and developing such players stateside can lead to what aid groups consider exploitation. Such is the finding of Bob Hohler, a Boston Globe reporter who wrote a long investigative piece tracking the lives of two Sudanese refugee recruits (hat tip: Matt Yglesias). From that story:

The two refugees, like dozens of athletic African youths shepherded to US shores by basketball recruiters associated with American nonprofit charities, arrived with little more than the shirts on their backs and starry visions of new lives in a land of plenty.

Instead, Thon Luony and Mathiang Muo tumbled into a group some are calling the new Lost Boys of Sudan - young Afri can basketball prospects bounced by their sponsors from state to state and school to school, sometimes substandard schools where basketball is the main object and academics are sketchy. Some, like Luony, fear deportation if they protest. Many wind up feeling manipulated and betrayed, but also wary of losing the support of those who promised to help them.

A Globe examination of the recruitment and treatment of African schoolboy ballplayers found many such stories. Last year, for example, six Sudanese refugees were sent from Australia to Laurinburg Institute, a financially imperiled basketball mill in North Carolina, where they complained of receiving too little food. Months later, all but two of the youths were returned to Australia, after the National Collegiate Athletic Association barred US colleges from accepting Laurinburg’s academic credits for student athletes.

"They treat us like slaves,’" Luony said at a rural school in Mississippi where he found temporary refuge. "It happens all the time to kids from Africa, and a lot of us don’t know any better. It’s very frightening."

The common reaction to this? No kidding. What's more horrifying? That this happens? Or that no one is surprised when it does?

To be fair, the two players in Hohler's story lived in horrifying conditions before their basketball sojourn -- genocide- and war-torn Sudan, for example -- and that's objectively much worse than languishing academically in a U.S. basketball mill while visions of hoops stardom pass by. And plenty of global recruits know what they're getting into before they come try to play basketball in the U.S., whether they're from Africa or not. But that doesn't make this process right. It only makes it slightly less bad than genocide and war. We can all agree that's not exactly the bar the NCAA or the NBA or the AAU ought to be shooting for.

In any case, read the entire Globe story and get the full download. Solutions to such a quandary are fleeting. The NCAA is locked in an eternal struggle with domestic recruiting sleaze; it's hard to imagine expanding that struggle to Africa. But whether it's an independent watchdog group or a collective coaches' resolution similar to the one preventing recruitment of grade-schoolers, there has to be something better than the status quo. Because the status quo, at least in this case, really, really sucks.

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