Sport Agents on the College Scene
Like them or not, sport agents are a fact of life for high profile athletes in the contemporary sport scene. Most of us were not really aware of their influence or, perhaps, even of their existence before the 1996 movie Jerry McGuire. The main character in that movie, a struggling sport agent with an aging football client, dealt with the professional environment. Yet recently, through two very high profile events, the roles and the integrity of sport agents have been brought into focus in the realm of college athletics – and that has given us all pause to wonder and surmise.
In a recent article in Sports Illustrated, a former sports agent who concentrated on college talent “confessed” to having paid college athletes before their eligibility had expired. Josh Luchs revealed his travails to George Dohmann of Sports Illustrated, claiming that he wanted to “let people know how the agent business really works, how widespread the inducements to players are and how players have their hands out.” In addition, he wanted his young daughters to realize that he was not the conniving cheat which many believe he was.
Regardless of his mea culpa, from which he will probably produce a profitable book, with sport agents preying on college athletes, there is reason for us to examine the issues more closely. We can recount the litany of athletes who could not play in bowl games because it was revealed that they had taken cash from an agent before their eligibility had expired. The case of the party held in South Florida also affected many players from different teams, including North Carolina and Alabama. Per usual process, the NCAA declared the players accountable for taking the “extra benefits” from this party, which included airfare, hotel rates, and, perhaps, other inducements not revealed, so that when the time came for them to be drafted by the NFL it would be that agent with whom they would sign for representation.
Before any solutions are presented, it is important to recognize that most of these student-athletes come from socio-economic circumstances which are vastly different from the general student populations at the universities which benefit from their athletic prowess. To make the point, I remember recruiting a very fine athlete in South Florida who later became an All-American, then an All-Pro linebacker. When I visited his home I could see through spaces in the floorboards of his “home” to the sand beneath it. He had very few personal belongings or clothes – but he was a great athlete. Was it fair to place him into a student population with which he had little in common either socially or economically? We don’t think about this part of the equation – ever. Their reward is their college degree, which he earned. So when an agent comes along to a student-athlete who has nothing and offers him money just to become his agent when the time comes, what kinds of moral dilemmas does he face? Many do not think about it. They take the money and move on.
The issue of sport agents and college athletes cannot be truly examined without understanding this element of the total picture.
The NCAA offers some very explicit regulations regarding sport agents and student-athletes with eligibility remaining. In the NCAA Manual, Rule 12.3.1 deals with “Use of Agents”. In short, it stipulates that no student-athlete may enter into an agreement, written or verbal, with an agent for representation prior to the expiration of his or her eligibility. If such is done, the student-athlete shall be ruled ineligible. Further stipulation comes in 220.127.116.11 “Benefits from Prospective Agents” which states, “An individual shall be ineligible per Bylaw 12.3.1 if he or she (or his or her relatives or friends) accepts transportation or other benefits from: (a) Any person who represents any individual in the marketing of his or her athletics ability. The receipt of such expenses constitutes compensation based on athletics skill and is an extra benefit not available to the student body in general.”
The rule is very clear, yet the temptation is often too great. The student-athlete may lose eligibility, but if the institution does not catch it, the institution is penalized for lack of what the NCAA refers to as “institutional control”. Those penalties can be debilitating and include loss of scholarships, forfeiture of contests, and even forfeiture of funds received from the lucrative bowl games.
Add to this the fact that many states, including Alabama and Florida, have laws penalizing sport agents who violate this NCAA rule and it would seem clear that those who cross the line can pay a very heavy price.
To be fair, the majority of sport agents play by the rules. The main service most of them perform in today’s economy is trying to teach young athletes the value of their highly lucrative contracts. They can literally go from “rags to riches” with the contracts they sign. Sport agents with a real conscience work with athletes to ensure that the money can truly put them in a position to be “set for life”. History can count the vast sums of money some athletes have received with their contracts and have squandered through poor advice and being preyed upon by less than scrupulous agents.
The NFL Players Association (NFLPA) has stepped in and requires agents to take a test and pay a fee to be registered. Sport agents receive 3% of the contract for their services, less than the NBA, Major League Baseball, and the NHL.
The real problem is that the unscrupulous sport agents seem to get all the press. What can be done, then? There are three things which I believe can bring this issue under control:
- Enforcement of state laws is the most effective tool. There may be fines for the sport agents, but they are not enough. Fines range from $1500-$2500. By comparison to what the athletes and their universities lose, that is minimal. The first measure, then, is effective state enforcement of their laws.
- Placing the responsibility squarely on the student-athletes and not on their institutions would also begin to corral those student-athletes with their “hands out”. Devise some formula as to what the institution is about to lose, the cost of the student-athlete’s education, and any other ancillary fees that might be reasonably be assessed, and place that on the student-athlete.
- Bring the NFL itself into the picture. The NFL could easily put a stop to this nonsense by refusing to draft the violating (or violated) athlete, and banning his agent for life. As drastic as this measure may seem, until the NFL, which ultimately receives all the benefits of the athletes’ talents, steps in and joins forces with the states and the NCAA, the measures will all be less than completely effective.
Ultimately it is a question of ethics in sport and personal moral choices, but until sports fans, and, perhaps, society at large, understand that there is a socio-economic disparity between most student-athletes and the general student populations for whom they play, that sport agents are in a cut-throat business, and that laws without effective enforcement are empty, student-athletes will continue to be preyed upon and used by unscrupulous sport agents. And we will continue to be outraged – until the next incident.
Dr. Ogden is the Vice President of Development and Communications at the United States Sports Academy. He has served in sport and education for over 40 years at the college and high school levels. Prior to working at the Academy, he was assistant athletic director at Auburn University.