Stakes high for agents, athletes

Colleges try to control access

Staff WriterJuly 20, 2010 

Some colleges vet their athletes' complimentary ticket requests to make sure players aren't leaving tickets for sports agents.

Some schools film and monitor the tunnel areas of their football field and basketball courts before and after games to make sure agents aren't getting chummy with players.

The Southeastern Conference, a college football powerhouse, even has a rule prohibiting agents from having sideline passes during games, NCAA spokeswoman Stacey Osburn said.

Despite the aggressive countermeasures, the influence of agents hustling to curry favor among college athletes is one of the biggest problems college athletic administrators face as they try to keep their programs from running afoul of NCAA rules.

Recent investigations tied to agent activity show that agents rival and may have surpassed overzealous boosters - people who contribute to the program - when it comes to rules violations.

"Boosters, I think, have become educated over the years," said Jon Fagg, the senior associate athletic director for compliance at Arkansas and a former compliance officer at N.C. State. "They have a vested interest in our success just like we do. They want to see our teams and programs do well. Agents, on the other hand, don't necessarily have that same interest."

Miami senior associate athletic director Tony Hernandez, who is president of the National Association for Athletic Compliance said, "Agents aren't out there trying to hurt an institution, but they're trying to promote their own business. But at times, those areas can conflict."

The agent problem appeared in the Carolinas on Thursday, when North Carolina athletic director Dick Baddour said NCAA investigators had been on campus.

NCAA adds South Carolina

Three days later, South Carolina athletic director Eric Hyman said the NCAA had been in contact with the school about a possible violation there.

"All of our players, our team, has been well-versed or taught about agents or people giving them gifts or money or whatever," South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier told The State of Columbia. "... So if we have a player that accepts money, gifts from agents or whatever, they'll be ineligible to play."

NCAA investigators have spoken to UNC senior defensive end Marvin Austin, UNC senior wide receiver Greg Little and South Carolina tight end Weslye Saunders about possible improper involvement with sports agents. Little and Saunders are from Durham. Saunders' father, Barry Saunders, is a metro columnist for The News & Observer.

Efforts to reach the families of Austin, Little and other UNC players have been unsuccessful. Weslye Saunders told The State on Sunday he couldn't comment "right now" on the matter; his father also has declined to comment.

Baddour and Hyman have pledged their full cooperation with the inquiry. Fans, coaches and administrators alike now await the NCAA's ruling and possible penalties for the players that could range from repayment of benefits with suspensions to permanent loss of eligibility. If it's found that ineligible players competed in games, schools can have game results stripped from their records.

A scan of recent headlines devoted to NCAA investigations shows just how pervasive the agent problem has become.

Last month, Southern California was hit with major rules violations because former Trojans tailback Reggie Bush and former Trojans basketball player O.J. Mayo were found to have accepted numerous favors from agents.

John Wall, the point guard from Raleigh who was the No. 1 pick in last month's NBA Draft, missed Kentucky's opener and an exhibition game last season because he accepted $787.58, primarily in travel expenses, from a sports agent.

This spring, Kentucky pitcher James Paxton left school after he refused to cooperate with an NCAA investigation regarding a report that his "adviser" - agent Scott Boras - contacted a Toronto Blue Jays official regarding Paxton.

Compliance officers stay busy

Schools' NCAA compliance officials monitor both agents and "runners," middlemen who try to gain the loyalty of players and then get them to sign with an agent. NCAA rules prevent players, their families and associates from accepting benefits from agents or third parties who are working to get players to sign with an agent.

But agents often try to get an in early because the stakes are so high; they stand to earn a percentage of their stars' multimillion-dollar contracts. So the more athletes they sign, the more money they stand to gain. The higher their signees are drafted, the more money they stand to gain.

"It's incredibly hard to deal with," said Fagg, of Arkansas. "You have to go at it from the players' perspective, in my opinion. We try to educate our players on what people do to get them in a position they don't want to be in, and how the need for agents is later, and there really is no reason to have an agent now."

Osburn said the NCAA interacts with conferences, schools, athletes and even the agents themselves to make sure they are aware of the rules. The NCAA also conducts outreach with the pro leagues' player associations, which help certify agents.

"One thing that gets lost in this is the 'why' behind it, why we need to have these rules in place," Osburn said. "We really need to maintain amateurism. It's crucial to making sure that the academic environment is healthy and that the competition is fair and equal."

Agent conduct also is regulated by law in most states, including North Carolina and South Carolina. Agents must register with the secretary of state in North Carolina and the Department of Consumer Affairs in South Carolina.

In both states, an agent must inform a school's athletic director within 72 hours after contracting with an athlete. The laws also prevent agents from making false representations and from furnishing anything of value to athletes before they enter a contract.

For agents, violating the law is a Class I felony in North Carolina. In South Carolina, it's a misdemeanor punishable by up to three years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

Campus invitations

Osburn, the NCAA spokeswoman, said many schools invite agents to campus once a year to allow them to interact with players in a controlled environment in front of parents and athletic staff.

North Carolina, for example, held its annual "agent day" for football on April 10.

Each year, players who have spent at least three years in the program and therefore are eligible for the NFL draft are invited to an educational session about agents.

"They may have an agent come in," UNC sports information director Steve Kirschner said. "They may have someone from the NFL Players Association come in. They may have someone from the NCAA come in. ... And it's an educational process about the do's and don'ts of hiring an agent."

(Kirschner and UNC officials have not confirmed that the current investigation involves agent issues or even the football program.)

Spurrier, the Gamecocks football coach, told The State that South Carolina players are well versed in the dangers of dealing with agents.

Miami's Hernandez said having a dialogue with agents themselves is important, too. He said they often provide information about other agents and which players they are interested in.

But he said the agent industry keeps getting more competitive, and that makes it difficult to keep them in line.

"It's become a tougher business," Hernandez said. "... They're competing much harder to get the next available client. So therefore our vigilance needs to step up as well."

Staff writer Robbi Pickeral contributed to this report.

ktysiac@charlotteobserver.com or 919-829-8942

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