Maryland and Under Armour…Joined at the hip isn’t a violation

March 02, 2009 | Drew Forrester

Let me get this straight.

The Gary-haters all say, “Gary’s program stinks because Gary can’t recruit anymore.”

The Gary haters aren’t heard from when the Terps beat North Carolina. Recruiting, I guess, wasn’t much of an issue a couple of Saturdays ago when Maryland shocked the Tar Heels.

Now, Gary and the Terps are “in the hunt” for a rock-star recruit named Lance Stephenson and, suddenly, Williams is under the gun – again – because of recruiting.  Only, this time, Gary’s gettin’ torched for actually trying to land a quality player.

Here’s the full story from the Washington Post.  It’s a “lover’s triangle” of sorts, with Maryland Athletics, Under Armour and Stephenson at the points.

Want the Cliff Notes version?  OK.  Under Armour is a $17.4 million “best friend” of Maryland Athletics and the school’s exlusive apparel partner.  The guy who started Under Armour, and still their man out-front, is former UM football player, Kevin Plank.  Plank is also on UM’s “Board of Trustees”, a role given to those who donate $1 million or more to the school.  Lance Stephenson came to College Park for an official “visit” on January 31.  The morning of the first day of his visit at UM, Stephenson also received – and accepted, evidently – an invitation to make a trip to Baltimore to tour the Under Armour headquarters.

That was a mistake.  It connects, innocently perhaps, a recruiting trip for Maryland basketball with a recruiting trip for Under Armour.  The apparel company would have been far better off bringing Stephenson and his family to their headquarters a week or two later.  That would have gone a long way in eliminating any notion that the trip to the Washington DC/Baltimore area was a two-stop visit…College Park for hoops – and Baltimore for talks with Under Armour.

The long history of apparel companies chasing high school athletes is well documented.  Rest assured, it’s been reviewed time and time again by the NCAA, but the catch-22 is they need the marketing dollars the Nike’s, Reebok’s and, now, Under Armour’s, provide to both the schools and the conferences that make up the NCAA.  They don’t like the shady side that brings…”free money” being thrown around just to have a guy wear a certain shoe or sport a particular logo when he becomes a professional.  That relationship begins at the college level though, as apparel giants try to recruit the blue-chippers with the hope of building brand loyalty with them.  It’s highly-competitive and there’s also a “what people don’t know won’t hurt them” element attached to it that most of us aren’t familiar with, including the NCAA.  But, the good (money) probably outweighs the bad (dirty competition) and the NCAA simply says, “we just want you all to try and play by the rules and we’re OK with whatever you do.”

And that’s why the current MD/UA/LS situation needs to go under the microscope.

If Under Armour brought Lance Stephenson to their Baltimore headquarters in an attempt to privately (and, maybe, strongly) influence Stephenson’s decision to attend the University of Maryland, that’s wrong.  It’s that simple, really.  But, unless someone can present some hard, concrete evidence to support such a claim, it looks to me that the “Triangle” is violation free, despite what the Gary-bashers will claim.

There are some questions, of course.  They deserve answers.  Did Gary and/or anyone at Maryland approve of Stephenson’s little side trip to the UA headquarters when he was in College Park for a visit?  If so, that wasn’t very smart on the school’s part, since anyone with even a minor in common sense would put one and one together and say, “gee, that doesn’t look right.”  Did Under Armour contact the school prior to purusing Stephenson to make sure they were, in fact, not putting Maryland in a possible non-compliance position?  It appears they did.  That’s a plus for Under Armour.  It shows they were – or are – aware of the connection between Maryland, a potential recruit, and Under Armour’s perceived role both with the school and the young man in question.  If Under Armour was trying to be devious and assist Gary in some clandestine fashion, they would have done so on “off-hours” and shuttled the kid in with a blanket draped over his head so not even the clean-up crew would know he was in the building.

Given the relationship between Maryland Athletics and Under Armour, wouldn’t it make sense that everyone in position of authority with both organizations would go out of their way to make sure nothing improper could be documented and pursued by the NCAA?

Isn’t there a 300-page book somewhere that spells out what’s right and what’s wrong as far as compliance goes between Maryland and ANY sponsor or booster?

I say “yes” – on both counts.

Kevin Plank didn’t build a billion-dollar-baby by making bad decisions.

Debbie Yow has taken UM from a school with an athletic deficit of $51 million to one that’s now only $17 million in the red.

She knows what she’s doing.

And Gary, no matter what the haters say, is also smart enough to know that he’s dealing with 18 year old kids with big mouths.  What good would it do Gary to help facilitate some sort of improper relationship between Stephenson and Under Armour when he’s not 100% sure the kid is ever going to play in College Park?

As for Plank’s role on the “Board of Trustees”, it might make sense for him to remove himself from that position until, perhaps, his day-to-day-duties change or diminish at Under Armour.  Having the guy who signs the checks at Under Armour sitting on a Maryland board that could – or couldn’t – influence decisions at the the school his company spends $17.4 million with is reasonably assumed to be a “conflict of interest”.  I think that’s an easy way to clean up the situation and I can’t imagine either Plank or UM would be any worse off for it.

The sub-story to this entire issue is easy to dissect.  What knowledge did the University of Maryland have about the “same day trip to Baltimore” that Under Armour scheduled with Lance Stephenson?  If they didn’t know about it, it’s difficult to hold them accountable, isn’t it?  After all, Maryland doesn’t run Under Armour. Under Armour runs Under Armour.  Maryland doesn’t run Lance Stephenson.  Lance Stephenson and his family run Lance Stephenson.

I’m not naive.  I’m sure Under Armour’s position in the sports world and their efforts to become “a player” in the NBA can’t hurt Maryland’s chances of landing top recruits in the future.  Schools all across the country have been parlaying those kinds of “special relationships” with apparel companies for a long time.

It’s only when the school works IN CONCERT with the apparel company to help bring a student-athlete into their athletic program where the line is crossed.

Could the whole thing have been done a little differently to completely remove any doubt at all that Lance Stephenson wasn’t being connected to Maryland through Under Armour?  Sure.

On the whole, though, it looks as if everyone knew the rules (as liberal as they might be…), observed and complied with them, and did what every other school does with much-sought-after high school athletes.

The Gary-haters – facing a bunch of egg in their face when the Terps qualify for the NCAA tournament later this month – are hoping beyond hope Maryland’s going to get called on the carpet for this episode.

It’s not going to happen, though.

Maryland and Under Armour did what any other school and shoe company would have done – within the regulations, of course.

They made Stephenson feel like King for a Day.

It’s how you win the recruiting war.

“We’re going to treat you better, make you better, and prepare you better than anyone else.”

I’m sure that’s how Lance Stephenson remembers his trip to DC/Baltimore.

“They treated me great down there…I might really like that place.”

Of course, that could all change if Stephenson takes a trip to Florida to visit with Billy Donovan.  That recruiting visit wouldn’t include a side-journey to Under Armour, but it might include an accidental visit to the Delta Zeta sorority house.

But wait…sending a recruit out with another basketball player to see the best looking girls on campus wouldn’t be the biggest reason why a kid would choose the Gators over the Terps.

Right, Matt Walsh?

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