A Tall Order

Every high school may dream of having the next NBA star among its students, but one athletic director finds out the privilege comes with some tough choices.

By Grant Nesbit

Grant Nesbit is the Athletic Director at Lawrence North High School in Indianapolis. A licensed principal, he has been a guest lecturer at the Indiana Principal Leadership Academy and Indiana Association of School Principals’ conference. Previously, he served as Assistant Athletic Director and Head Wrestling Coach at Greenfield-Central High School, in Greenfield, Ind.

Athletic Management, 17.3, April/May 2005, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1703/tallorder.htm

Regardless of where I am or what I’m doing, if I mention that I’m the Athletic Director at Lawrence North High School, inevitably one question arises, "Isn’t that the school with Greg Oden?" Actually, they don’t always mention him by name, but sometimes as, "That big kid."

Greg Oden is a junior basketball player at our school who epitomizes the term student-athlete. He is a straight-A student, a team player, exhibits great sportsmanship, and led our team to a state title his sophomore year. But he is anything but typical.

Seven feet tall with incredible athletic skills, he is being hailed as the next great big man, and has gotten more media attention than probably any other athlete who still has two years of high school remaining. Greg was featured in the pages of Sports Illustrated, spotlighted on an ESPN halftime show, graced the cover of the Sporting News’ High School Hoops magazine, and is the subject of a weekly article that runs in our local newspaper. He receives a pile of fan mail every day and game promoters have besieged our athletics office with phone calls.

Needless to say, being the athletic director at Lawrence North this past year has been a challenge. The heightened exposure has created more duties for me, required better time management, and has necessitated doing things that most high school administrators rarely think about.

But the biggest challenge of my current role is that I’ve been required to make decisions on issues that can have far-reaching implications. I’ve had to balance competing interests, and I’ve had to choose between what is good for today versus what will benefit us down the road. I’ve had to keep in mind that I may be setting a precedent with each decision. And I’ve had to keep reminding myself that high school athletics is not the same as college or professional sports.

National media coverage of Greg started last summer, after his sophomore year, and with it came many phone calls from people I’d never heard of. The first interest group we had to address was the event promoters and tournament organizers inviting us to attend their invitationals.

Some offers were for individual made-for-TV weeknight games, where the organizer would choose our opponent. Others were for holiday or weekend tournaments. Still others were for showcase events, whereby several games between top teams are played throughout one day or evening at a venue that can hold a lot of spectators. And the promoter who took the cake was one who wanted to set up our entire schedule, promising it would pave the way for us to become the USA Today poll national champion.

There are a couple of schools of thought on scheduling when you have a superstar. One is to enter as many high-paying tournaments as possible. These events can pay $3,000 to $12,000 or more, but may require dropping existing regularly scheduled games to accommodate their timing. The upside is that you can make a tremendous amount of revenue and pad your athletic budget for years to come, making it a very enticing idea.

But for Lawrence North, there were a number of reasons why that model was not a good option. For one, our state association does not allow any of its high schools to compete with a school that is further than 300 miles from our state border, eliminating many potential opponents involved in these high-profile contests.

Secondly, we did not feel it was prudent to drop area schools from our schedule in favor of more lucrative opponents. This would leave our local schools in a scheduling bind, which simply wasn’t right. It also could easily come back to haunt us when Greg graduates and we wish to resume playing those schools. Our guiding principle has simply been, "Is this fair to everyone involved?" That helped us make the decision to keep our regularly-scheduled opponents.

Finally, there would certainly be scrutiny about flying our team around the country in hopes of seeing more and more dollars, and we didn’t feel like we could ethically defend such actions. We believe that high school athletics is, by and large, a system that operates within our state. Our goal is to win state championships. We really aren’t interested in becoming a mythical national champion.

That doesn’t mean we haven’t made some changes to our schedule. We accepted invitations to a couple of special events that didn’t disrupt our current schedule and which we believed would be a positive experience for our student-athletes. For example, next year we will participate in a holiday tournament in Chicago because it will not conflict with our set schedule, and because we felt that visiting the Windy City would be a great learning opportunity for our players.

We also played one made-for-TV game set up by a marketing group called Paragon, which was held at Hinkle Arena (on the Butler University campus) and aired nationally on ESPN2. We had a game previously scheduled for that date, but Paragon found our original opponent another team to play, and invited both of those teams to compete at Hinkle that night, allowing them to bring home a couple thousand dollars. Our original opponent for that date was quite happy with the switch, so we felt comfortable going ahead with the special game.

The media attention Greg has received has been overwhelming. The biggest challenges here have been balancing what is best for Greg with what is best for the school. We’ve also needed to balance what is best for Greg now versus what is best for his future.

Media requests have ranged from postgame access to Greg to offers from production companies wanting to follow our team for the entire season, filming every aspect. We decided to err on the side of caution and agreed to only a handful of offers. In each case, we questioned the intent of the story, sometimes even negotiating its content.

We have allowed cameras to follow Greg through portions of his school day only twice. The first was for the ESPN halftime feature. We felt that the opportunity for Greg to be on a respected national show was an offer we shouldn’t refuse. Even though such national attention didn’t really fit our model of what high school athletics should be about, we can’t ignore that we have a young man in our program who has the potential to be an NBA star in three years. Thus, we felt it was in his best interest to accept this type of positive national attention.

But first, we asked ESPN what the story would be about and what type of access they needed. The ESPN producers thoroughly explained the show’s content to us until we were satisfied. In the end, they proved to be extremely professional and respectful of our wishes.

We also covered our bases with central administration, Greg’s teachers, classmates, and others affected by the visit. It turned out to be a fun and worthwhile experience and provided Greg with very positive coverage that may enhance his potential earnings as a professional player.

The second request we honored, but with some stipulations, was from a local television station that wanted to do five separate spots on Greg that would run throughout one week on its morning show. In this case, I agreed, but only if they would also feature some of our school’s other successful teams. I also told them exactly when they could visit—at a time that I felt would cause the fewest distractions. They ended up doing two spots on the basketball team, one on our state champion wrestling team, one on our cheerleaders, and one on a non-athletics student group. It was a great way to get publicity for other deserving students, and it didn’t take anything away from Greg, as he gets more than ample local coverage.

We also allowed reporters from Sports Illustrated access to Greg for an article. Like with ESPN, we felt the reputation and reach of the magazine was worth the disruption. We also asked them to explain the content and tone of the article before any interviews took place.

However, we have turned down countless other requests for access. In the fall and early in the season, we allowed some local and national outlets to interview and photograph Greg in the school, but on a very limited basis. Then, after the game on ESPN2, we began declining all non-game related interview requests for Greg until the season is completed. At that point, we felt we had done enough to provide ample exposure for him and the school, and it was all becoming a large distraction.

One small thing we did to accommodate the press was to create a media room in our athletic facility. This helps in that we don’t have several cameras fighting for a spot just outside the locker room. Furthermore, it allows for more organized postgame interview sessions.

Throughout the media mayhem, we have tried to come up with policies to help guide our decision-making. An important one is that the local media gets the most access to Greg and the team. They are the people we want to continue having good relationships with for years to come. Another is that whenever possible, we try to get the entire team covered, not just Greg. A third is, we always act professionally and with level heads. This has resulted in very positive results and no negative stories.

In trying to make good decisions during these Greg Oden years, a key element has been keeping lines of communication open and working with others. Most importantly, I keep our principal apprised of any decisions involving media access. She does not believe in micro-managing her staff and as long as I keep her updated, she has left most of the athletics decisions to the athletic department.

However, I don’t hesitate to ask for her assistance if I need it. For example, after Paragon approached us about televising a game, I sat down with central administration to go over the proposal. During that meeting, I was offered the use of our school attorney to help look over the contract—a resource which has proved instrumental in this and later negotiations.

Our Head Boys’ Basketball Coach, Jack Keefer, and I communicate daily. A well-respected, long-time coach with several state titles under his belt, Jack keeps educational athletics in the forefront no matter what curve ball he’s thrown. Because he and I have the same philosophy, we’ve been able to make decisions together and talk through the more difficult aspects of our unique situation.

Lastly, but most importantly, we make sure to communicate with Greg and his mother on a regular basis. Greg works in our athletic department office one class period a day, providing a great opportunity to check in with him every day. During this time, he can ask us questions without other students around, and we have time to discuss how to approach specific requests.

We’ve also worked with Greg on how to handle the media. We’ve coached him on some basics, like how to deflect praise to others and not answer any question he doesn’t want to. When he is interviewed over the phone, I will talk to the reporter first and remain in the room if Greg wants me to.

Greg and his mother are both very grounded and do not yearn for attention, so discussions with them often focus on how to maintain their privacy while keeping Greg open to positive exposure. For example, when ESPN wanted to do the halftime show on Greg, his mother told them no. But when I explained that this was a reputable media outlet and that the positive exposure now could contribute to future earnings, his mother agreed to it.

Greg and his mother were also instrumental in the decision to no longer respond to media requests after the ESPN2 game. Greg wants the rest of the season to be about the team, not himself, and so we are working hard to make that happen.

Many people ask me how much money the athletic department is bringing in by having a superstar in the program. The truth is that we haven’t really increased our revenue that much.

Ticket sales is one area where we could be bringing in more dollars, but we have chosen not to. Our gym seats 3,000 and certainly we could have moved some games to bigger venues and sold more seats. We charge $5 for tickets and most fans would still buy them if we charged $10, even more for some games. But in both cases we didn’t feel we could defend such decisions.

We asked ourselves, "Would upping ticket sales be exploiting Greg?" Although some people will answer yes and others will answer no to that question, we didn’t want to risk creating any negative perceptions. In addition, the fans from other schools in our conference would not have been happy paying more money to watch their teams play at Lawrence North.

Our sneaker contract was another area for greater potential return, but again we stuck with our standard mode of operation. After Greg’s freshman year, Nike contacted us about supplying sneakers for the team. However, Coach Keefer did not want to stop using our long-time vendor, who had been loyal and hard working. So we continue to obtain sneakers through our usual vendor, who supplies us with Reebok.

It may have been more lucrative for me to speak with Nike further about their offer, but I allowed Coach Keefer to make the decision to stay with a company he trusted. We did ask Reebok if they would purchase the back cover of our basketball program and sponsor our media room, something they agreed to in appreciation for our loyalty.

As I write this article, we are at the tail end, which is going extremely well. We have not had any complaints about the decisions we’ve made or the strategies we’ve taken. The team is competing strongly and is focused on winning another state title.

But we know we’ve got another year to go before Greg graduates, and that there may be more pressure on all of us to make more difficult choices. With each decision, we’ll continue to take a deep breath, talk it through thoroughly, and remember our philosophy on high school athletics. We’ll continue trying to maintain a balance between allowing Greg and the school to benefit from positive exposure, while not exploiting a gifted young man.

We’ll also remember to enjoy the competition and the pleasure of having an outstanding student-athlete go through our program. Greg is just like a lot of our other student-athletes—when he graduates, we’ll simply miss having him around.

As a frequent contender for state titles in many of our sports, Lawrence North High is no stranger to publicity. We are the seventh largest high school in the state of Indiana, and our alumni include Eric Montross, who went on to have a great collegiate basketball career at the University of North Carolina and played in the NBA. We also belong to an eight-school conference whose boys’ basketball games are frequently televised by a local Indianapolis station.

So when promoters began expressing interest in televising our games, we had some familiarity with the process. But because of Greg’s presence, we did take some steps we hadn’t in previous years.

With help from our school attorney, our first stipulation was to make sure that we retain the rights to each telecast. One potential scenario that concerned us was that someday someone might make a DVD marketing Greg’s high school games. I feel that our school, not a media outlet, should retain the rights to those games.

Second, for the local telecasts, we felt that we should receive some remuneration, even though we hadn’t in the past. More importantly, though, I wanted to be in sync with the other athletic directors in our conference and maintain our longstanding relationships. So, with help and agreement from other schools in our conference, we decided that the television station would become our conference corporate sponsor and thus provide some remuneration to each school in that manner.

Finally, when dealing with television stations, we decided to use "agreements" instead of "contracts." When a contract is involved, the signature of the president of the school board is required, and our school board did not want to have to review and sign every television contract we negotiated. Thus, we used the term "agreement" and not "contract" when writing and signing any documents.