In April 2017, the Bristol Herald Courier, a newspaper in Southwest Virginia, named junior guard Mac McClung its boys basketball player of the year. The Courier said McClung’s games at Gate City High School “were standing-room only affairs.” In a town of roughly 2,000 people, McClung was afforded big-man-on-campus status while still maintaining a modicum of anonymity, at least beyond his tiny pocket of the state.
Then a curious thing happened. McClung became the poster boy for the burgeoning Internet era of high school basketball, leaping from local star to a national stage shared by other elite adolescent talents who have their every move documented on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. That’s because in May of 2017, someone at Ballislife, the crème de la crème of high school basketball highlights, caught McClung aggressively dunking on everyone in his vicinity at an AAU game. By June of 2017, McClung was hovering around 20,000 Instagram followers. His final year of high school ball turned into a complete circus, with more viral clips than one could possibly count. Now, McClung is headed to Georgetown, with a tad more Instagram followers: roughly 644,000.
It’s nothing new for basketball recruits to have fame bestowed upon them at an early age, though in the prep-to-pro era, most of the footage of future stars was limited to grainy mixtapes. That’s no longer the case. If you Google even fringe players from the classes of 2018 or 2019, you're certain to find a video with tens if not hundreds of thousands of views and an entire comments section dissecting every jump shot. Many of the videos aren't just highlights—they're mini-documentaries showing a day in the life of a 17-year-old.
“These kids are thinking about making sure they have the right Clif Bar in their locker for after practice,” said Dr. Jenelle Gilbert, a professor and graduate program coordinator for the kinesiology department at Fresno State. “They have very high school-centered needs, but they’re being thrust into an adult world very, very quickly.”
Ballislife founder Matt Rodriguez boasts on his LinkedIn page that Ballislife viewership jumped from 97.99 million across social media platforms in 2016 to 682.78 million in 2017. Overtime, which launched in Dec. 2016, says it has “20 million minutes of watch time each month” and, since the start of 2018, has received $9.5 million in Series A funding plus $2.5 million in seed funding. There’s also Mars Reel (25 million unique views per month as of January; they also landed $2.5 million in seed funding this year), EliteMixtapes, HoopDiamonds, and CityLeagueHoopsTV, which focuses on middle school boys and girls.
“This is something that’s completely new to us, and frankly [the channels] were almost expecting to have access,” said Archbishop Molloy High School athletic director and boys basketball coach Mike McCleary. He oversees a team in Queens, New York, that had three Division I prospects in 2017-18: UCLA signee Moses Brown, Georgia Tech signee Khalid Moore, and point guard Cole Anthony, ESPN’s No. 6 prospect in the class of 2019. “A lot of times [the videographers] would just show up,” McCleary continued. “They do a lot of communicating with the athletes themselves, and not as much communicating with me as necessary.”
Each of the channels has seen an eruption in popularity over the last year or so. Problem is, kids (and adults) don’t necessarily understand the drawbacks to this degree of outsized exposure. Concerns about players’ emotional well-being have been raised in the NBA, but the high school level has barely begun to grapple with the detrimental impact an industry eager to build on its bottom line could have on teenagers, who get a boost in name recognition in exchange for an entirely new set of stressors and expectations.
Gate City boys basketball coach Scott Vermillion, for instance, knows McClung was acutely aware of his newfound audience during his senior season, which ended with a 29-2 record and a Class 2 state title. “He felt pressure to perform because of all of the cameras. People are traveling from California to film our games and do highlights,” Vermillion said. “He attempted a couple dunks this year that didn’t go in, but I didn’t mind.”
At Archbishop Molloy, it’s Anthony who’s the biggest draw. He, like McClung, has eclipsed the six-digit Instagram followers mark. Both have cultivated a social media image that looks like it’s straight out of a public relations firm. Documentary-style videos provide glimpses into their personalities, but their Instagram and Twitter accounts rarely deviate from posting highlight-reel clips they’re tagged in.
McCleary and Vermillion have slightly differing opinions about the influx of high school basketball-dedicated channels. Vermillion believes they’re a net positive, noting that the “overall effect it had on our community, on our kids, on our region, on our team, on the game of basketball, far outweighs the negative parts.” McCleary was careful to note he had no ill will toward any one entity, and he’s all for “the kids getting some notoriety.” But he also felt the channels were a distraction, and wished he “would have put a few more stipulations” in place when they started showing up. On the whole, McCleary finds the channels to be a net negative.
One downside both coaches cited was how the spotlight messed with the other kids on their rosters. Said McCleary: “I think it does individualize a player when you’re trying to build a team. We had three very good players, all very nice kids—respectful, did what we asked them to do, and I think they were in for the team. But they’re getting the attention, and the other 12 kids aren’t.”
Unlike college or pro basketball, where there are clearly defined boundaries enforced between media members and organizations, there is no standard for high schools or high school basketball channels to adhere to. That’s partly a result of how the channels are set up, with some hiring professional videographers while others outsource contracted positions to people who happen to live in an area with a touted teenager. Coach Vermillion turned down video requests for the last few weeks of the season, but that was an arbitrary call based on how his team was handling the additional scrutiny. For now, that’s the only tangible protection.
Neither Vermillion nor McCleary thought their star players suffered significantly on or off the court as the cameras poured in. But from all indications, the coaches had their players’ best interests at heart, and kids like McClung and Anthony were cited as having especially strong familial support systems, which certainly isn’t the case for every prospect.
Dr. Frank Smoll, a sports psychologist, declined a formal interview for this piece because at this point, he feels talk is cheap. Instead, he suggested in an email that action is required from a large organization like the National Federation of State High School Associations to examine potential negative effects and put guidelines in place to protect teens. On its website, the NFHS says it’s dedicated to “building awareness and support, improving the participation experience, establishing consistent standards and rules for competition, and helping those who oversee high school sports.” In a statement to Vice, Bruce Howard, the director of communications at NFHS, didn’t indicate any policy positions were imminent.
“We would prefer the focus be on the team rather than sensationalizing individual players,” Howard wrote. “I think our schools and state associations will continue to monitor these type of sites to protect the players.”
High school basketball players deserve the opportunity to promote themselves, but like most situations involving young adults and athletics, the scales are tipped against them. They aren’t the ones making money off their likeness. Dollars aside, there are unexplored short- and long-term consequences of sudden fame for still-developing kids. (When asked to comment on the subject, the parents of athletes contacted for this story declined to make them available.) Unfortunately, there’s no break for anyone to take a step back and reassess—AAU ball is in full swing over the summer, and then it’s back to school. In other words, this is the new reality, for better or worse. Or, as Dr. Smoll signed off in one of his emails, “I'm sorry for being so pessimistic, but ‘it is what it is.'"