Author George Dohrmann

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Pulitzer Prize-winning sports writer explains why he feels the world of youth basketball is an exploitative and lawless society.

George Dohrmann is a senior writer with Sports Illustrated, where his primary beat is investigative reporting. He's the last sportswriter to win the Pulitzer Prize—for a series of stories he wrote while working at the St. Paul Pioneer Press that uncovered academic fraud within the University of Minnesota men's basketball program. He's also written for the Los Angeles Times. Dohrmann is a Notre Dame graduate and holds an MFA from the University of San Francisco. His book Play Their Hearts Out is an exposé about youth basketball.


Tavis: George Dohrmann is a Pulitzer Prize-winning sports writer who serves as senior writer at “Sports Illustrated.” In a recent cover story for the magazine he uncovered new evidence about the relationship between sports agents and college athletes – more on that in a moment.
His critically acclaimed new text about the state of youth basketball in this country is called “Play Their Hearts Out: A Coach, His Star Recruit, and the Youth Basketball Machine.” George Dohrmann, good to have you on the program.
George Dohrmann: Thanks for having me.
Tavis: You called it a youth basketball machine, and after reading your book, it is a machine, but tell me why.
Dohrmann: Well, you have various people, you have coaches, shoe company executives, agents, college coaches who all have a stake in these kids’ futures, and it sort of churns them through as it makes money off them.
Tavis: When you say a stake, it’s really more than a stake. This is a system of exploitation.
Dohrmann: Yeah, there’s sort of no way of getting around that, right? Most of the coaches are White, especially the most prominent ones, and they take advantage of the youth of America, a lot of them inner city kids, and work it all the way up through the system and make as much money off them as they can.
Tavis: This is an age-old story. Why – and I’m not naïve, of course, when I ask this – but why does this paradigm still exist, these White coaches taking advantage, more often than not, of these Black kids?
Dohrmann: No one controls this world. There’s no NCAA or NBA that can step in and apply their rules. It’s really this lawless society, and so if you’re a guy like the main character in my book, Joe Keller, you can wake up one day, start a team, recruit the best players, and profit off of this, and there is – as coaches told me, “No one can stop me. No rules apply to me.”
Tavis: Tell me how the process works. Why can Joe Keller or anybody like him start their own team, make a bunch of money exploiting these kids? I want to come back to the NBA and the NCAA in just a second, but tell me how this process works or how these guys start these teams.
Dohrmann: Well, there’s sort of this cherry out there, and it’s a shoe deal. It’s the shoe deal. The shoe companies, Nike, Adidas, Reebok, they will offer a shoe deal to a coach who controls the best kids. They want to brand those kids. What I found in the book was kids as young as 13 were being sought after by the shoe companies and branded.
This is big money. This is hundreds of thousands of dollars for the coach. The coach at the center of my book starts out as a car alarm installer living in a 700-square-foot apartment. He’s a millionaire by the end of the book.
Tavis: So at the epicenter of this are the shoe companies. Why are the shoe companies allowed to run amok this way?
Dohrmann: Great question. I wish somebody would step in and do something about that, but they’ve found that this is effective viral marketing. They’ve found that getting their shoes on these 12, 13, 14, 15-year-old kids helps sell shoes to other 12, 13, 14 and 15-year-old kids, and so they’re not going to stop, because it’s highly profitable.
Unless somebody like the NCAA or the NBA comes in and says, “We want you out of the game,” they’re going to stay in the game.
Tavis: When you say this is a lawless society, it’s lawless, to your earlier point, George, because the NCAA has really not stepped in; the NBA has really not stepped in. If they’re the ones who ultimately benefit, even more than the Kellers of the world, why doesn’t the NCAA step in? Why doesn’t the NBA step in? When you say it’s lawless, it’s only lawless because people allow it to be such.
Dohrmann: Yeah. My guess is that it’s expensive. My guess is for them to reform youth basketball it would involve some pretty drastic ideas – something like the NBA setting up youth academies, like we see over in Europe. A real investment in the future of these kids.
I just think that they’re still making money under the current structure so they’re not going to deviate from that until they’re forced to.
Tavis: So who, then, except when a guy like George Dohrmann comes along and writes this book, who’s defending, who’s speaking on behalf of these kids who are being exploited by this process, and if they don’t measure up – what’s sad about this book, and I’ll let you tell the story, if these kids start out with some promise, if they don’t end up measuring up the coaches drop these kids like a bad habit.
Dohrmann: Yeah. That’s really what I think I set out to do, was to show – we see the kids that succeed, right? We see them on draft day with their fancy suits and their millions, right? What we don’t see is the kids who were – that stardom was pinned for them but it didn’t work out.
So when I set out to write it, that was really the goal because it really comes down to it’s just these kids and their parents, or in some cases no parents, to protect them, and they’re thrown into this machine, and we really – I wanted to show how it grinded them up.
Tavis: From a parent’s perspective, even though the kids are being exploited, I guess I understand it on this level, that if you are a poor family and you’ve got two, three, four kids or even a couple of kids and this kid represents the potential of being a meal ticket, as it were, for the entire family, then you don’t have a problem on a certain level with your kid getting caught up in this machine if you think at the end of it there’s a pot of gold. So I don’t know what we can, what we do say to the parents of these kids, do you?
Dohrmann: No, I don’t. A lot of people say to me, “Well, how can the parents do this in the book?” The main character Demetrius, his mother Keisha, works two jobs. She is struggling, and this coach comes along and says, “Hey, I’ll help you out. I’ll give your kid clothes, I’ll help him in school, I’ll pick him up, I’ll drop him off,” and as you said, gives them this future, this goal, puts this out there for them – hey, your kid has that potential.
I don’t blame the parent at all for saying, “Yes, thank you, let’s go this direction.” What’s unfortunate is the men that are making this promise are profiteers. They’re not genuine people; they don’t genuinely care about the kids. That’s where the disconnect occurs.
Tavis: Why would a guy like Joe Keller let you spend as much time with him (laughter) as you did? I don’t think he’s stupid. I would like to think he’s not that naïve. He knows what he’s up to; he knows you’re following the story of his relationship with Demetrius. He knows he’s going to drop Demetrius – well, he knows, obviously, that he did drop Demetrius and you were there to witness all this.
It’s almost like wanton hubris for him to know that you’re going to see all this and to give you all this access. That’s the one thing about this book I couldn’t figure out – why he would give you that much access.
Dohrmann: I think it started out as a short-term idea. He thought oh, this will be good for recruiting, if I can tell parents that I have a guy from “Sports Illustrated” following my team. So he started out that way, and then I think I just got inside and I was close enough with him and his family and all the kids that it sort of – I was kind of like a tick. It became hard to get rid of me at some point. (Laughs)
I also think maybe we don’t see ourselves as we often are, and I think Joe doesn’t see himself as arrogant, as sort of distasteful as he really is.
Tavis: He did not – does he now, or he still does not?
Dohrmann: I would say he does not, no. Not now, either.
Tavis: Do the kids have any idea of what they’re getting into when they get pulled into this machine, as you put it, when they’re 12, 13 years old?
Dohrmann: No, and I think the transformation that we see in the players in the book, especially Demetrius, you see he’s an innocent kid who just loves to laugh and works really hard and is just playing the game, right? Just playing his heart out. Then we see him over time, as the pressure increases, as he gets ranked, as he appears in magazines, as the pressure builds, we see him change.
So I think they get into it like kids do with anything – they just throw their heart into it, and then it takes often too long for them to realize that they’ve been taken advantage of. It took Demetrius far longer than you would think it would to realize that he had been taken advantage of.
Tavis: There are a number of stories of late, and you know the ones I speak of, where we’re learning more and more about players being paid. This starts, to your point, at a very early age. Speak to me about the issue of players being paid under the table by many of these coaches, et cetera, and whether or not that problem is even getting worse as we speak.
Dohrmann: It is getting worse, or it’s as bad as it’s ever been, I guess. There’s just so much money at stake, and people realize – one of the messages of the book is look how young they’ll go. They now realize that there’s money there and so they’ll just go younger and younger and younger.
So we’re seeing kids this young, we’re seeing more college kids being targeted than ever before, because the money’s so great, and why wait? Why wait until you can legally approach them? Do it first – the early bird kind of thing.
Tavis: Has the time come for a serious conversation, you think, about whether or not players, amateurs, ought to, in fact, be paid? The coaches are getting paid, the schools are getting paid, the television networks are getting paid, obviously the conferences are getting paid. Is the time now for a conversation about amateurs being paid?
Dohrmann: Absolutely. I think that the story you mentioned earlier that I wrote in “Sports Illustrated,” about the agent Josh Luchs admitting paying players, what you saw was he was giving guys $200 a month, $300 a month, kids who lived in L.A., where it was expensive. He talked to these kids and they were saying, “I just need a little extra money.”
So really, I think people say, “Oh, we want to stop agents from paying players.” Well, give the players. It’s like the drug war – you’re not going to stop the use of drugs until you educate and you cut off the demand, and really, that’s how you cut off or you lessen the demand, is you give some players $200, $300 a month, just a little bit of money, let them be normal students.
Tavis: It’s easy for me to ask that question. How realistic is it, though, you think that conversation will ever get off the ground? I’m still waiting for (laughs) something other than the bowl championship for college football, and we’ve been having that conversation for 50 years. How realistic that we will ever have a real conversation about paying players?
Dohrmann: I think what we’ll see, what we could see some time in the next five years, is just a slight bump in scholarship money. Just a little bit more of a bump, that they don’t call it paying players, they call it whatever –
Tavis: A stipend.
Dohrmann: Yeah, exactly. (Laughter) Some sort of adjustment for inflation or something like that.
Tavis: A food allowance.
Dohrmann: Yeah, something like that. I think that is realistic, but the NCAA will never call it what it is, which is supplementing the players.
Tavis: The new book from George Dohrmann, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, is called “Play Their Hearts Out: A Coach, His Star Recruit, and the Youth Basketball Machine.” A worthy read, especially if you’re a sports fan, as so many of us are. George, good to have you on the program.
Dohrmann: Thank you.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm