Since its creation in 1888, the Amateur Athletic Union has been a subject of criticism—from their early days of barring women from events to its handling of amateur athletes’ personal data.
Today, most criticisms revolve around the handling of its biggest sport: basketball. “Terrible, horrible basketball,” Lakers legend Kobe Bryant said of AAU in 2015.
One AAU alum, Isaac Swindell, also a former walk-on for UNCG’s basketball team in 2010, has a more well-rounded view of the organization as whole.
“Fundamentals are not the focus of AAU basketball,” he explains, speaking on his experiences. Neither is it a legitimate preparation for collegiate style basketball. “If you are in the right side of AAU politically the level of speed and athleticism found in the college game will be there. But the environment and the structure will not.”
Swindell explains the most important point that Bryant’s vague analysis completely misses—that the hidden framework of the AAU is staining the integrity of basketball from an entrepreneurial standpoint.
“Make no mistake,” he said. “I’m not trashing AAU basketball. But people need to be aware of what it’s become…most of AAU has gone away from its “amateur” roots and turned into a money funneling profession that exploits one group while financing another all under the same brand.”
It seems that the former Spartan isn’t alone in his feelings. The internet is crammed full with stories from concerned parents and observant outsiders that point out the extensive commercialization and perceived unfairness of the league.
There are even videos that show high school players being approached by scouts from shoe companies, already looking for their potential profit-generators. That won’t scare everyone, but the manner in which the AAU caters to these corporations should.
Swindell explained that the AAU has, as he phrased it, “A teams” and “B teams.”
“The B team’s only purpose is to collect and generate revenue that is used to finance the “A” team. The “A” team is kept secretive and is formed on an “invite” only basis. This is the club that gets exposure.”
That kind of favoritism is a plague.
“Many fall victim to the false perception that by simply playing “AAU” they will be recruited,” Swindell said. “If the proper political guidance is not in place then the young man will play his heart out under a glass ceiling.”
It seems that what should’ve been an organization inherently designed to balance out privilege and random chance of American sports has become another system that promotes hard work without rewarding it.
That should be painful to all sports fans—we like to believe in a fair system. If you’re good, a team will find you.
But what if that good player is undersold a bit in high school? He lands on one of the “B teams,” strays away from the eyes of college recruiters and loses his chance of a scholarship offer.
Maybe he makes a D1 team as a walk-on. That doesn’t give him the same opportunity as a scholarship player—the program will want to see the guys they’re paying for out on the court.
After that, opportunity slips through the cracks. The chance to fill in a box score fades away and making a career out of the sport disappears with it.
It’s an endless, frustratingly capitalistic trap that way too many athletes have found themselves in. Every equal opportunity turns out to be dependent on the opportunity before that—until it roots back to privilege.
Despite their control over such a large piece of the system, Swindell isn’t about to concede the struggle of upstart athletes to external forces. “None of what AAU can provide will give you a heart. That only comes from time spent in the gym when nobody else is around.”
Still, the former UNCG forward believes that the organization is still a help to amateurs overall—which really can’t be argued. Although undoubtedly imperfect, the AAU creates a clearer path to success then convention high school athletics ever could.
“If AAU no longer existed the world of Amateur sports would be worse off…it has its place in the bigger picture.”