Commentary

Will agents get an invite to the table?

Originally Published: July 30, 2010
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

While the NCAA's Agent, Gambling and Amateurism Activities staff was busy making like Sherman and torching the South last week, within the same Indianapolis NCAA offices there was a quiet movement afoot that could ostensibly put the AGA out of business.

In its June report the Amateurism Cabinet, responsible for all pre- and post-enrollment eligibility issues, quietly dropped this bomb:

"Agent/Advisor Discussion: The cabinet began initial discussions regarding current agent and advisor legislations. The staff provided the group background information related to current issues and trends involving prospective and current student-athletes' use of agents and advisors."

Translation courtesy of the NCAA Speak to English dictionary: The NCAA is considering ways to perhaps allow its athletes to have agents.

[+] EnlargeNCAA Logo
G Fiume/Getty ImagesThe NCAA would like its student-athletes to receive better advice. Will agents be a part of the equation?

"This is on our radar screen and we're in the information-gathering stage," said Baylor law professor and faculty athletics representative Mike Rogers, chair of the Amateurism Cabinet. "One of our overriding concerns is getting accurate and non-biased information to get meaningful decisions. We're going to be wide open to suggestions."

While Rogers cautioned that this is just the beginning of the process and that he expects plenty of input and reaction, he also added: "I think there's a good chance that there will be some legislative proposals in next year's cycle. I think that's a reasonable goal."

In a written statement Thursday, NCAA interim president Jim Isch said the organization is looking into "how advisors might assist in providing information to student-athletes who are weighing their options."

"The NCAA routinely reviews current trends and how they could impact our rules. As a part of this ongoing effort, the NCAA has begun preliminary discussions about our current agent and advisor legislation. We need to ensure that those select student-athletes with professional athletic opportunities have the best information at the right time to make informed decisions."

A week ago Alabama football coach Nick Saban likened agents to pimps after confirming that the NCAA is investigating a trip one of his defensive ends, Marcell Dareus, took to a South Beach party hosted by an agent.

At the Peach Jam tournament two weeks ago, 20 college basketball players surveyed anonymously by ESPN.com universally agreed that agents are by far the biggest problem in college athletics.

And not surprisingly, upon learning that the NCAA now might want to permit athletes to retain agents, reactions from coaches varied from curious to downright mystified.

"It's about as bad an idea that I can think of off the top of my head," Syracuse basketball coach Jim Boeheim said. "It's putting the wolves in the sheep's den."

This controversial issue, should it gain the legs that Rogers expects, could end up dividing the power brokers in college athletics.

At SEC media days, commissioner Mike Slive said "our intent is not to eliminate NCAA oversight of agent issues … but rather to change the NCAA's philosophical basis for these rules from enforcement to an assistance-based model."

He has his share of supporters.

Georgetown coach John Thompson III said: "The entire system needs to be reevaluated. We're operating under a system where little Billy sits down with his parents and his high school and decides where he's going to college. That's not the world we live in, so we need to figure out how to adjust how we operate."

Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe said he not only agrees with Slive, he's been calling for similar legislation for 15 years.

"Let agents have contracts with players and the schools," Beebe said. "Those clauses would have a liquidated damages clause, where it would cost the agent $1 million or $2 million if they did anything that made the player ineligible. … The ethical guys will come out of it in better shape by putting sunshine on this. You'll promote the agents who want to do it the right way."

But some coaches counter that the concept of "agents who want to do it the right way" is almost oxymoronic and that passing any sort of legislation only lifts the latch on a Pandora's box.

"I think the NCAA has to be very careful going down this road," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "Because you know if the NCAA says agents can be involved with an athlete at this point, they'll get involved even earlier. If you open that door even a little …"


On the surface this would seem like nothing more than an exasperated NCAA throwing up its hands at an agent crisis that it can neither police nor stop.

But NCAA officials insist that is not the case.

Despite the current rash of headlines, this topic has been on the Amateurism Cabinet's docket for some time. But with other issues to handle -- namely allowing athletes' likenesses to be used in university promotional materials -- the cabinet hadn't had the time to address it until its June meeting.

"The world is constantly evolving," said Rachel Newman-Baker, the director of the AGA division of the NCAA. "Agents are always trying to find new ways of doing business, so it's always a good thing to find a way to keep on top of it, to look at the rules and see how they fit or don't fit in the real world."

Part of what brought this issue to the forefront was a recent $750,000 settlement between the NCAA and Oklahoma State pitcher Andrew Oliver.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Oliver
Courtesy Mark Crammer Clemson Sports InformationThe case of former Oklahoma State pitcher Andrew Oliver brought the agent issue to the forefront.

The NCAA declared Oliver ineligible prior to the 2008 playoffs because he had legal representation while toying with turning pro out of high school.

NCAA rules permit athletes to have advisors but those advisors/agents aren't allowed to be part of any negotiation process.

Oliver sued, arguing that the NCAA was preventing him from getting legal help and a judge ruled in his favor, forcing the NCAA to look at whether it was being unfair to its athletes.

Even coaches acknowledge that there can be a natural disconnect between a player weighing a decision to turn pro early and a coach trying to build a program.

But they also aren't certain that agents are the people to offer unbiased opinions.

"It's a natural phenomenon for the family or mentor to not trust the coach. In our case, for example, Jameer [Nelson's] decision dramatically impacts our team," Saint Joseph's coach Phil Martelli said. "John Wall's decision dramatically impacts Kentucky. So I understand that. But everyone has an agenda. What's an agent's motivation? What's his interest? And where does the kid fit in?"

Many skeptics argue that there are already plenty of ways for an athlete to get good, non-biased information without opening the door even a crack for an agent.

Under current NCAA rules, there is nothing to prohibit an athlete from speaking with or getting advice from an agent.

Bylaw 12.3 reads, in part, "It is not a violation of NCAA rules if a student-athlete merely talks to an agent (as long as an agreement for agent representation is not established)."

And both the NBA and NFL have advisory committees that are designed to offer information on a player's potential draft status.

Plenty of schools and conferences offer similar outlets. Arkansas football coach Bobby Petrino brings agents on campus to interview players, and last year Saban hired Joe Mendes, who has 25 years in NFL front offices, as a consultant. Mendes' job is to help players select their future agents.

"This is what we tell our players: We don't want you to do any business on a street corner," Saban said. "We have a guy that comes in here and will sit with agents. You can interview agents. You can use my office if you want. We're not trying to keep our guys away from agents. We're just trying to keep what happens on the street corner from happening."

At Duke, law professor Paul Haagen has been counseling Blue Devils for years about their potential futures, even going so far as to represent some athletes -- free of charge -- until they choose an agent.

Warren Zola, a business professor at Boston College, offers a similar service for BC athletes.

"Can you get quality advice in other places?" Haagen said. "Absolutely. I think the essential question here is what are you going to solve if you bring it out into the open?"


In the opinions of many coaches and others associated with college athletics, the question isn't which problems are going to be solved by bringing agents out into the open, but which problems are going to be created.

[+] EnlargeMike Krzyzewski
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesCount Duke's Mike Krzyzewski among the coaches skittish about cracking the door open for agents.

"To open the door for free access -- agents in locker rooms, agents in dorm rooms -- that just makes me shudder," said National Association of Basketball Coaches president Jim Haney. "This would just invite in what's already the biggest problem in our sport."

Haagen said those na´ve enough to think agents will toe the line are failing to understand the competitive business that agents are in. Like coaches working to land recruits, agents are constantly working to land top athletes.

Haagen said that statistics show that for every professional athlete, there are two registered agents, creating a supply and demand imbalance that tempts some to resort to unscrupulous methods.

And to get an edge, many fear, agents will scout for talent earlier and earlier.

"If they know they can get involved when do they get involved?" Krzyzewski said. "Is it before [the players] come into school? And if you give them that inch, they will take it a mile."

And the NCAA will be hamstrung to stop them, short of doing exactly what it's doing now -- punishing the athletes and the universities instead of the initial culprits.

The NFL Players Association has a strict no-contact rule for agents but the NBA Players Association does not have a similar rule in place and the NCAA is virtually toothless when it comes to punishing agents.

Newman-Baker acknowledged that while the NCAA could make rules to make it easier or harder for athletes to work with agents, the organization could not make rules that would punish the actual agents.

"I don't see how we could," she said. "That's not where our jurisdiction is."


Here's the truth: College athletes aren't getting in trouble for getting advice from agents; they're getting in trouble for getting cash from agents.

Former Florida Gator Maurkice Pouncey is being investigated for reportedly taking $100,000 from an agent; Georgia and South Carolina are looking into whether some of their football players attended an agent's party in South Beach -- and if they did, who paid for it; and in the ACC, North Carolina football players are being investigated for possibly receiving illegal benefits from agents.

To open the door for free access -- agents in locker rooms, agents in dorm rooms -- that just makes me shudder. This would just invite in what's already the biggest problem in our sport.

-- NABC president Jim Haney

Mix in the Reggie Bush/O.J. Mayo payola that landed USC on the wrong side of NCAA sanctions and you have evidence of the systemic problem assaulting college sports.

Allowing athletes to have any sort of permissible contract with agents, many people argue, is going to invite more illegal payments, not prevent them.

"You sign a kid and someone else is trying to get him," Haagen said. "Now that kid has a bad game, he's playing out of position, the coach is yelling at him. He's mad at you. He wants to go with someone else, so you have to intervene inappropriately -- even though you know it's inappropriate -- or you're going to lose a competitive position to another agent."

In order to preserve any semblance of amateurism ("Having an agent has been viewed as historically highly inconsistent with the concepts of amateurism," Rogers said), it's almost impossible to imagine the NCAA ever allowing any cash exchange, at least legally.

"While the NCAA wholly supports student-athletes getting complete information," said interim president Isch, "the membership is not likely to change its opposition to student-athletes receiving benefits from agents and advisors."

Consequently an agent would only see a profit if his or her player became a pro, which some fret could lead to problems even graver than under-the-table payments.

Many coaches already describe the relationship with their players' agents as antagonistic and expect this would only make it worse as the two sides vie for what they each need out of one player.

"We have situations where, when the season is over, agents are advising their players not to play in all-star games," Haney said. "Kids say all the time, 'My agent won't let me play. He's afraid I might get hurt.'

"Well what's to stop an agent from telling a kid he can't play in a real game? Or to tell a coach he needs to get his player more shots or more playing time? How do we stop that from happening?"


This could, of course, be a whole lot of hand-wringing about nothing.

The Amateur Cabinet won't convene again until September and even those who disagree agree on one thing -- there is still a lot more information to be gathered and particulars to work out.

"There's so much to talk about -- from student-athlete welfare helping them make informed decisions, to benefits from an agent, to oral and written agreements and the timing of the access," Newman-Baker said. "I really don't know quite frankly where this will go. There are a lot of opinions and the first step is to vet through them and figure out where everyone stands on this issue and get honest feedback."

That shouldn't be difficult.

Haney already has promised to make this part of the NABC's board meeting at the end of August and football media days have been dotted with rhetoric and opinion on the subject.

In the pro corner: "There would have to be folks a lot smarter than I am look at the ramifications," conceded Beebe, who is in favor of agents for college athletes. "But if I'm a coach or an administrator at a school, I'd rather know who I'm dealing with."

And for the opposed: "Maybe I'm missing something here," Boeheim said. "But I can't figure out how this could ever be a good idea."

The word is only just starting to spread and already the first shots have been fired over the bow.

Expect more fireworks to come.

ESPN.com senior write Pat Forde and ESPN.com college writer Mark Schlabach contributed to this story. Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

Dana O'Neil | email

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