Commentary

Cooperation key to solving agent issue

Originally Published: July 30, 2010
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

IRVING, Texas -- Daniel Thomas is a late-blooming college football star.

He spent two years playing quarterback in junior college, then sat out another year to become academically eligible at Kansas State. Switched to running back, the 6-foot-2, 227-pounder burst onto the scene in 2009 as the Big 12 Newcomer of the Year, rushing for 1,265 yards and 11 touchdowns.

You know what came next.

[+] EnlargeDaniel Thomas
WD/Icon SMIKansas State's Daniel Thomas is trying to elude tacklers on the field -- and agents off it.

Endless phone calls from agents.

How they got his cell number, he has no idea. He's tried to redirect them to his parents back home in Hilliard, Fla., but he says they keep calling.

"Five different ones call every day," Thomas said at Big 12 media days this week.

If agents are persistently badgering a previously unheralded back from a school that has had just one winning season since 2003, it's not difficult to deduce what life is like for the five-star recruits at the power programs. And what it has been like since many of them were in high school.

"It's an epidemic out there," said Florida coach Urban Meyer, who has recruited more of those high-caliber players than anyone else in recent years.

But it's not just a football epidemic. It's even worse -- a pandemic, really -- in men's basketball.

"It's very hard to keep agents away," said Syracuse basketball coach Jim Boeheim. "Almost impossible."

The NCAA enforcement department is attacking Mission Impossible with impressive zeal and effectiveness right now -- in fact, one informed source says investigators have more interviews lined up with players this week or next at two or more prominent football programs. And most observers seem convinced that the ripples touched off by the July revelations of agent-funded parties and plane tickets will continue to spread.

"This thing is far, far, far from over," one source said. "You're hearing the phrase 'tip of the iceberg' a lot."

The questions are these:

How did the iceberg get this big?

Is the current movement to purge the agent scourge both committed and effective enough to do the job?

Answering them one at a time:

The agent problem has been there for decades. Former NCAA head Dick Schultz was publicly dismayed by agent scandals as far back as 1987. The fact that it has become iceberg-sized in recent years is an outgrowth of several attitudes. Among them:

Cynicism: There is widespread belief by players and those around them that the system is unfair -- that they deserve more than a scholarship.

Impatience: The best players know that, soon enough, they will be getting paid big bucks -- so why wait to cash in?

Entitlement: Having been identified by scouting services and others as potential future pros, many elite players already have been accepting kickbacks in one form or another since high school. Agents and their runners are just one more hand offering them something.

Ignorance: A large percentage of players and their families are poorly equipped to navigate agent waters and understand the business of managing sudden wealth, and many schools fail to adequately educate them.

Disinterest: There are plenty of agent laws put on the books in recent years designed to discourage unscrupulous interaction with college athletes. Not many of them are actively enforced.

Benign neglect: Schools don't want to know what their star players are getting and how they're getting it, clinging to the defense of plausible deniability in case any of it ever comes to light. So the compliance staffs remain smaller and less powerful than they should be and the head coaches recite their most important mantra in times of crisis: "I had no knowledge … "

Combine these factors and you have a system set up for failure. NCAA rules are being flouted all over the country, and players are winding up with unethical and unprofessional representation. Rand Getlin, founder and head of Synrgy Sports Consulting, which helps universities and athletes navigate the choppy waters from college to the pro ranks, cites research showing that 78 percent of NFL players go broke within two years of leaving the league.

"I hope that if anything comes out of this [recent scrutiny on the agent problem in college sports], the athletic directors and coaches realize how much is at stake for their schools," Getlin said. "And the kids get the assistance they need to successfully transition to the professional level."

Why didn't college sports see the iceberg before hitting it? In reality, it did see it. But even as pro salaries skyrocketed and took agent profits with them, spiking the greed on both sides, the college sports cruise ship never slowed down or altered course.

Getlin estimated that there are more than 800 agents and countless runners vying for roughly 255 NFL draftees every year. Competition is fierce and penalties for skirting the rules are rarely a deterrent for the agents.

In that Darwinian environment, agents are utilizing any means necessary to procure clients. That can include financial advisers, cut into the deal to set up lines of credit and find other creative ways to funnel money to players and their families. It can also include enlisting assistant coaches or other athletic staffers at schools.

At NCAA regional rules seminars earlier this year, enforcement video presentations raised concern about "agents paying position and assistant coaches to recruit student-athletes." It also mentioned "assistant coaches participating in the agent selection process." Not all the bad guys are on the periphery of campus; some of them are in the locker room.

Given the daunting nature of the task, how effective can the clean-up effort be?

Recent results give reason for optimism. At the very least, the NCAA's raid of sorts on North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama -- those are just the schools we know about -- has sent a panic through both college football and the agent community.

The association's Agent, Gambling and Amateurism Activities department has some useful tools going for it: newfound knowledge; aggrieved parties; a recent history of crushed cheaters and dissemblers; and, of all things, Twitter.

Probably most importantly, the AGA has made better entrée into the agent netherworld and gotten a firmer grasp on how the seamy game works. Unlike the twin USC scandals involving Reggie Bush and O.J. Mayo, the NCAA did not need a media-made road map to investigate the parties-and-plane tickets situation in South Beach. NCAA enforcement is, for a change, in front of the media on this issue, instead of vice versa.

Part of having that firmer grip on the game involves cultivating sources. And recently, those sources have been ready to sing about all the abuses they've seen in recent years.

"We've tried to reach out to as many people in sports communities as we can to help us," said AGA director Rachel Newman-Baker. "Professional leagues, player associations, agents and advisers have all been willing to cooperate with us.

"In some regard, people are just kind of tired of it. They're fed up, and our membership feels very strongly about agents and wants us to aggressively pursue agent issues."

Aggressive pursuit is made easier when you carry a big stick. And multiple sources say the banishment of Oklahoma State receiver Dez Bryant for the remainder of his college career last year for lying to NCAA investigators is the current stick of choice. Scared schools are asking their athletes to be honest in order to avoid the Bryant treatment.

Of course, it also helped that some players have left a cyber-road map for the NCAA to follow. Tweeting about living the high life in South Beach when one is from Washington, D.C., and in school in North Carolina is a pretty good way to raise a red flag. Players on the take are hereby advised not to advertise it on social media.

Despite all the inroads that have been made, there still will have to be a collective accountability by multiple interested parties to melt the agent iceberg. Only time will tell whether that will happen.

"So far, all the talk has been about bad agents," Getlin said. "There's more to it than that. Everyone needs to step up. The feds, the states, the [NFL] players' association, the schools, the coaches, the kids. That's the only way this situation improves itself."

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.