In the swiftly changing world of elite youth sports, the venerable McDonald’s All-American all-star basketball game suddenly finds itself facing criticism from a Jeff Bezos-backed basketball academy over the question of what constitutes a modern high school.
McDonald’s will announce its final rosters on Tuesday for the March event in Houston, which features both boys and girls from the 2023 graduating class. But a controversy surrounding the choices erupted earlier this month, when the McDonald’s selection committee left Kentucky recruit Robert Dillingham, a consensus top-10 player now with the Overtime Elite (OTE) basketball program in Atlanta, off the list of 700 nominees for the game.
The omission created a stir in youth basketball circles not only because of the 6-1 Dillingham’s ability as a ball-handler and scorer, but because of his previous affiliation with Kanye West’s Donda Academy, which shuttered and dissolved its hyped basketball program last fall in the wake of West’s string of antisemitic statements.
“McDonald’s, they know that we have guys here who are eligible to go to college, and if they’re eligible for college, why are they ineligible to play in the McDonald’s high school all-star game?” said Damien Wilkins, the head of basketball at OTE. “You leave off the top guard in the country, and he’s headed to Kentucky next year. And I just don’t understand the issue. For the life of me, it doesn’t make sense.”
Wilkins said it’s especially puzzling because Dillingham would have been eligible while enrolled at the scandal-plagued Donda Academy.
McDonald’s game director Terri Lynn Wootten sent Sportico the selection committee’s list of criteria for school eligibility in an email but did not specifically respond to follow-up questions about why Dillingham was not chosen. “OTE has a certain business model, and that’s not one that fits the McDonald’s criteria,” Wootten said.
The eligibility criteria McDonald’s sent to Sportico includes:
- Attends and participates in a high school program that has one eligible varsity team and is a member of a high school athletic conference or league.
- Attends a school that plays 80% of its scheduled games against other public, private, independent, and/or charter high school teams within a high school league on the national circuit.
- Nominees cannot hold a professional status as a basketball player or receive payment/inducements for participation in basketball games/events.
- A school cannot have professional (paid) players on its high school team.
Defining high-school eligibility has become a challenge in youth sports. Over the past decade, dozens, if not hundreds, of sports-focused academies have popped up guaranteeing young athletes “exposure” they would not receive at traditional high schools. They often play in loosely regulated leagues and tournaments, avoiding the structures, rules and legitimacy of state high-school activities associations. Indeed, some of these academies weren’t schools at all, offering little or no legitimate coursework. Donda, for instance, was not accredited.
OTE, a well-financed startup whose investors include both Bezos and his Amazon, exists in a different sort of gray area. It is not part of a formal outside high-school conference, though it has formed its own league, with a half-dozen squads that play each other and occasionally compete against other prep-school programs and academies. The organization began as a fully professional training academy in 2021, signing high-school-aged players to six-figure contracts. The players in the first OTE “class” knew they were forgoing NCAA eligibility, and a potential spot in the McDonald’s game, by turning professional.
This past summer, though, OTE started a companion “scholarship” program for players who want to maintain their amateur status in the eyes of the NCAA. Players in that program, such as Dillingham, can take coursework that renders them eligible under NCAA academic standards, OTE says. Those players can also take advantage of name, image and likeness opportunities. Dillingham, for instance, signed deals through his agency, WME, that earn him NIL income for endorsing products from companies including Overtime Sports, the media company that is the parent of OTE.
While Wootten refused to offer specifics on what criteria OTE violated for McDonald’s game eligibility, seven players on Dillingham’s OTE squad, the Cold Hearts, are on professional contracts, which may have been a deciding factor.
Wilkins, though, says the NCAA has no problems with OTE’s system, and neither should the McDonald’s game. “Kanaan Carlyle, for instance, is going to Stanford,” Wilkins said of another highly touted OTE player. “Stanford approves of everything we’ve been doing. If a school like Stanford can get behind us and get on board with us, then it’s hard to imagine why others can’t.”
Wilkins said OTE was still talking with McDonald’s game organizers last week in hopes of giving Dillingham a last-minute reprieve. “McDonald’s is still answering the phone for us,” he said, “so that’s a good thing.”
A group of more than 40 former McDonald’s All-Americans signed a letter urging the game to allow Dillingham to play. Dillingham himself also wrote a letter to the McDonald’s corporation.
The hubbub is the latest in Dillingham’s tumultuous high-school career, which has included stops at three basketball-focused academies in 16 months. In October of 2021, Dillingham abruptly left Combine Academy in Charlotte, not far from his rural North Carolina home, to play at Donda—without the permission or knowledge of his father, Donald Dillingham, who says he was Robert’s custodial parent at the time.
When Donda collapsed last fall, Robert Dillingham was uprooted again, and moved to OTE’s Atlanta base. Donald said he was not included in that decision, either.
While with Donda, the younger Dillingham signed a representation agreement with WME, co-signed by his mother, who was granted 15% of her son’s NIL earnings. His father was pondering legal action late last year to try to invalidate any deals Robert signed as a minor, but he told Sportico this week that he decided against it. Robert Dillingham turned 18 this month and is no longer considered a minor.