College Football Players Headline NFL Players Sports Agents

The Curious Sanders, Bryant, Parker Connection

Last week, I read one of the best pieces of journalism that I have been able to find on in quite some time.  The title of the piece is, The curious case of Deion Sanders.  Be warned, it is not one of the short fact-based pieces you are accustomed to finding on ESPN.  I find it quite interesting based on my limited coverage of Deion Sanders on this site in the past.

My coverage of Sanders started with a Facebook post made by soon-to-be first round pick, Dez Bryant, when Bryant revealed that he was being suspended by the NCAA because he went to Deion Sanders’ house, the NCAA found out, and Bryant lied to them because he thought that telling the truth would be a violation of NCAA rules.  Rumors started that Deion’s relation to agent Eugene Parker would lead Bryant to Parker.  Whether those rumors were true or not, Bryant did in fact eventually select Parker to be his agent.  I looked into that a little further in a piece titled, Dez Bryant Speaks About Deion Sanders And Eugene Parker.

So now we have this new piece by Seth Wickersham of ESPN the Magazine.  Here is a portion of that story that adds some thought to my previous discussion of the Bryant, Sanders, Parker matter.

When Bryant returned to Oklahoma State, he started asking his coaches questions about agents and his pro career — the kind of questions the sophomore had never asked before. His coaches wondered, Why now? Was Sanders helping Bryant out of kindness? Or was he steering a first-round talent to his friend, agent Eugene Parker?

Suspecting the worst, OSU receivers coach Gunter Brewer and then-compliance director Scott Williams ordered Bryant to limit his interactions with Sanders to texts and phone calls. Bryant agreed, but there was still cause for concern; he was notoriously unreliable, and getting him to focus on even simple tasks like attending class was a daily struggle.

OSU officials say they tried to set up a conference call with Sanders, hoping to guard against any rules violations, but they never connected — although they did exchange several text messages with him. Over the summer, Williams got the call he feared, when the NCAA asked to interview Bryant. On July 24, the wideout answered questions about Sanders and Parker for two hours. Bryant told investigators the same thing he says now: “Deion never talked about Parker.”

The NCAA didn’t buy it. Bryant was interviewed again in August and once more in September. “I answered all the questions the best way I could,” he says. “But they’d say, ‘I’m going to ask you one more time’ … making me think I’d done something wrong.” So Bryant lied about visiting Sanders at Prime U and dining at his mansion. Neither of those things was a violation. The trouble came when the NCAA interviewed Sanders, who repeatedly denied being a runner for Parker but who also told the investigators that he had hosted Bryant at his house. Bryant’s lie — not anything Sanders did — ultimately resulted in a suspension that caused the receiver to miss all but the first three games of the 2009 season. “I don’t feel like Dez’s suspension was Deion’s fault,” Williams says, adding that Sanders was “extremely cooperative and open” throughout the process.

The NCAA has closed its investigation, but suspicion lingers, especially after Bryant, the top-rated receiver heading into April’s NFL draft, signed with Parker in January. “Why does Sanders want to mentor only the star players?” asks a college assistant coach. “I’ve got a backup guard who could use guidance. It can’t all be innocent.”

Then again, Parker represents only a few of Sanders’ Kids. The agent didn’t need Sanders to land star clients like Cardinals wideout Larry Fitzgerald and Packers counterpart Greg Jennings, guys who barely know Sanders. “It doesn’t make sense for him to recruit guys to an agent,” says Hegamin, a friend of Sanders’ since 1995. “He doesn’t need anything. He doesn’t ask anyone for anything. He doesn’t need to work for anybody.”

Sanders can only shake his head and laugh as he says, “Being accused of working for an agent? You’ve got to be kidding me!” He rolls his eyes when he hears Colt McCoy, the former Texas quarterback, talk about working at the Manning family camp and texting Peyton and Eli all the time. The NCAA doesn’t investigate those relationships, Sanders points out. Yes, he admits that if a player asks for advice while picking an agent, he happily vouches for Parker — even if that endorsement is a gotcha moment in the eyes of his critics. But should it be? Is it wrong for an adviser to recommend a trusted friend and successful professional? After all, the NCAA and the NFL Players Association do zero to protect a player who gets swindled by a bad agent. In any other field, Sanders’ advice would be seen as a matter of course. In sports, it’s seen as another reason to shake your disbelieving head.


By Darren Heitner

Darren Heitner created Sports Agent Blog as a New Year's Resolution on December 31, 2005. Originally titled, "I Want To Be A Sports Agent," the website was founded with the intention of causing Heitner to learn more about the profession that he wanted to join, meet reputable individuals in the space and force himself to stay on top of the latest news and trends.

Heitner now runs Heitner Legal, P.L.L.C., which is a law firm with many practice areas, including sports law and contract law. Heitner has represented numerous athletes and sports agents as legal counsel. He has also served as an Adjunct Professor at Indiana University Bloomington from 2011-2014, where he created and taught a course titled, Sport Agency Management, which included subjects ranging from NCAA regulations to athlete agent certification and the rules governing the profession. Heitner serves as an Adjunct Professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law, where he teaches a Sports Law class that includes case law surrounding athlete agents and the NCAA rules.

13 replies on “The Curious Sanders, Bryant, Parker Connection”

This is quite a difficult issue with many twists, turns, and outcomes. After analyzing the issue from top to bottom, I have reached the conclusion that it must be a violation for the adviser of a student-athlete to recommend or endorse any sports agent.

As I learned from your law review article and by reviewing SPARTA (which regulates the conduct of agents in the recruiting and signing of student athletes), one of the three major duties imposed by the statute is a duty to refrain from “buying” an athlete. This essentially prohibits an agent from giving anything of value to the student-athlete or anyone associated with the student-athlete; the agent is at risk of a fine, while the player could lose NCAA eligibility. Now, many of the examples of student-athlete “buying” occur in the forms of monetary and material gifts provided by the agent himself (or herself). Your law review article mentioned Reggie Bush receiving approximately $280,000 in cash, rent, and gifts from sports agents looking to sign him. One suggestion might be to add to this statute a prohibition for excessive non-monetary “buying,” essentially using individuals to lure a student-athlete. More on this later.

I think, under the circumstances involving Deion Sanders and Dez Bryant, there might be a need for further regulation of the relationship between sports agents and student-athletes under SPARTA. My suggestion would be to extend the statute to govern sports agents and those acting on the agent’s behalf (similar to respondeat superior existing in employment/tort law; a doctrine which holds an employer liable for the torts of an employee who is acting on behalf of the employer and acting within the scope of his/her employment). The primary goal or business of a sports agent is to secure a student-athlete to an agency contract for exclusive representation. While SPARTA places limitations on the sports agent himself, it is not clear as to whether this applies to those acting on behalf of the agent, meaning those who work for the agent. I think this is a tragic oversight. There are no measures offered by SPARTA which regulate the individuals who may act on behalf of the agent. Essentially, this allows the sports agent to influence the athlete through an adviser. Why should a sports agent have the ability to gain an unfair advantage over other honest agents merely because he uses a loophole which allows the student-athlete to refer to an advisor of said agent? There must be some comprehensive standard that can be created to police “agents of the agents.”

The counterargument is that since the NCAA and NFLPA do not provide any protection for an athlete who is taken advantage of by a dishonest agent, the student-athlete should be able to turn to a trusted adviser to avoid being swindled. This is clearly a valid concern as a sports agent engaging in illegal, deceitful, and bad faith conduct risks a mere fine, while the athlete completely loses the eligibility to play.

However, this particular situation involving Bryant and Sanders seems questionable at best. Looking at the totality of circumstances, it is clear that Bryant’s involvement with Sanders was in violation of NCAA rules, warranting a suspension. Bryant visited Sanders’ home and dined with him (which is perfectly legal), but Bryant lied about this visit. Bryant claims he lied because he thought what he was doing was illegal. I have a question: How could Bryant, who is “notoriously unreliable” and rarely attends class, know what is legal and illegal under the NCAA rules and regulations? I find it hard to believe that someone who has no drive to do well in the classroom could know the NCAA rulebook cover to cover. Under this theory, one could make the assumption that Bryant was told by someone (maybe Sanders, maybe Parker) that this was illegal and he should keep his mouth shut. Clearly there are exceptions to what was stated above. Giving Bryant the benefit of the doubt, why would he lie about the dinner and raise further suspicion about this relationship? Clearly Bryant knew what he did was wrong – this was more than just a social meeting to discuss movies and politics, it was to discuss business.

Sanders readily admitted he directs players to Parker for representation. It is certainly no coincidence that Bryant would later sign with Parker. This type of conduct clearly needs to be regulated as it allows a sports agent to use an adviser to direct a student-athlete to sign with him for exclusive representation. Essentially, this arrangement could allow any agent to employ (officially or unofficially) a big-name former NFL superstar, who many young players idolized or look up to, for the purpose of securing an agency agreement with that student-athlete. Sports agents do so much research on student-athletes. The agents know the student-athlete’s strengths and weaknesses as well as background, favorite teams, favorite players, etc. Many of this information can even be found on school athletic websites. What is to stop a sports agent from kicking some money or other to the favorite player of the student-athlete to have a “talk” with him?

There are clearly advisers who are reputable and unaffiliated with agents, and that should not be trammeled on. But, looking at Sanders’ affirmative statements to refer student-athletes to Parker and Bryant’s lies about the interaction, this situation was wrong and deserving of discipline by the NCAA. There needs to be a mechanism which encompasses the totality of the circumstances surrounding the dispute. Some of these factors should include the nature relationship between the adviser and the sports agent, the interaction between the player and the adviser, the quality and truth of the statements given by all parties involved in the dispute, and potentially the actions taken thereafter.

Advisers should definitely not be outlawed as they serve a crucial role in the development of student-athletes, but there needs to be additional regulation of these arrangements to prevent some of the aforementioned problems from occurring.

I’m a little confused as to what Bryant’s violation was or what the NCAA was trying to pin on him

Have to admit, I’m a little disappointed nobody fired back. There are definitely counterarguments out there. Definitely an interesting issue.

Michael –
Your point on regulating excessive non-monetary “buying” of an agent. However, it is unlikely this will ever be done. How do you regulate what is considered excessive and what qualifies as “non-monetary?” Extending the statute this far could seriously hamper an honest agent’s ability to recruit agents. It would make a new agent virtually unable to try to gain an edge over established agents.

Secondly, I think you presuppose that today’s young players are ignorant in that they will do what a star player tells them to do. Today’s player is more sophisticated than at any other point in time. In many situations, there are other people in the player’s life (parents) who will make sure that an advisor is advising. An advisor who is a former player will not know all the issues that a player needs to be advised on.

That being said, I agree with you that there is always room for improvement of the current rules and regulations.

I apologize, the first part of the previous comment should read “your point on regulating excessive non-monetary “buying” of an agent is a good point.

I have never subscribed to the notion that “where there’s smoke, there must be fire.” Especially in college athletics. Everybody’s running games. Everybody’s got angles. There are so many pipelines in sports. Does money change hands? Maybe. Are there conflicts? Absolutely.

There are “runners” on every campus–some work for agents, some work in athletic departments. I less of a problem with Sanders doing what he does, perhaps because I see him helping a broader range of football players beyond just the elite guys. As a former pro athlete, he has the ability to use his knowledge and experience as a positive force. He can mentor young athletes like few others–he is definitely charismatic, but also impactful. He can help athletes avoid some of the mistakes he made…hopefully with age comes wisdom.

Or you can be completely cynical and say, well, something doesn’t smell right. Was there an outcry when John Thompson “funneled” many of his players to David Falk, who also served as his agent? Maybe it was because Thompson trusted Falk to take care of his guys.

You wrote, “But, looking at Sanders’ affirmative statements to refer student-athletes to Parker and Bryant’s lies about the interaction, this situation was wrong and deserving of discipline by the NCAA.”

Totally unfair to jump to such conclusions. An NCAA investigation is a terrifying ordeal. There is nothing wrong or illegal for college athletes to talk to advisers, even agents. Bryant may have chosen the wrong strategy when dealing with NCAA investigators. Part of the problem is that athletes don’t typically consult with qualified experts (attorneys and others knowledgeable about NCAA rules and procedures). Bryant got caught lying to the NCAA. I truly believe that if he talked this through, understood the rules, and was properly advised, he would not have lied. Of course, we’ll never know. I just hope college athletes learn a valuable lesson here: Don’t talk to the NCAA without an advocate on your side.

You wrote, “Your law review article mentioned Reggie Bush receiving approximately $280,000 in cash, rent, and gifts from sports agents looking to sign him.” I have not read Darren’s article, but Reggie Bush did not receive $280k. Maybe his stepfather did–and NCAA rules are broadly written to hold athletes responsible. The standard for athletes and institutions is, Did they know and should they have known? I certainly do not know the financial dealings of my stepfather, especially when I was in college. There’s a very good chance Reggie Bush had absolutely no clue what his stepfather was doing behind his back.

First off, love the responses – this is a fun issue to debate.

I think this situation is more of a wake-up call to the student-athletes, agents, and advisers: if you lie to the NCAA, you’re going to suffer the consequences.

Ryan, the non-monetary regulation was a suggestion I thought might be worth debating. After thinking about it for a day, there is probably no feasible way to regulate this type of activity. Regarding, this comment: “I think you presuppose that today’s young players are ignorant in that they will do what a star player tells them to do,” maybe I was stretching a bit there, but we do need to remember that these student-athletes are not well-versed in the business aspects of pro sports. Yes student-athletes have been given great opportunities to succeed along with some advisement during high school through college, but that certainly does not preclude them from being illegally influenced by a former NFL player, especially one as influential and gifted as Deion Sanders. The main reason for the suspension seems to be that Bryant lied; not the conduct of Sanders.

Marc, you mentioned the idea of player-advocates when dealing with the NCAA, I couldn’t agree more. These student-athletes need some form of representation when involved in a dispute with the NCAA. Most players do not have the requisite knowledge of the rules and regulations to undertake a hearing alone. Often times many people, including myself, forget that student-athletes are just kids (18, 19, 20 years old). I think adequate representation prior to the hearings might have solved some of the problems with the Bryant situation. This certainly appears to be more of a precedent-setting scare tactic by the NCAA to prevent student-athletes from straying from the truth when it comes to sports agents, representation, etc.

Back to my initial argument, I just believe SPARTA needs to be amended to include a provision placing limitations on those who act on behalf of agents – with specific elements that encompass the totality of the circumstances. I was merely throwing out some ideas. At the very least, the statute should cover those directly employed by the agent. With respect to advisers, it becomes tricky. For this reason, I suggested a test which encompasses all of the surrounding circumstances. The stumbling block is something you mentioned in your response:

“As a former pro athlete, he has the ability to use his knowledge and experience as a positive force. He can mentor young athletes like few others–he is definitely charismatic, but also impactful. He can help athletes avoid some of the mistakes he made…hopefully with age comes wisdom.”

This clearly cannot be discounted; former pro athletes have so much insight and experience to share, that it would be overkill to completely abolish their influence. My problem arises where advisers assume the role of acting on behalf of an agent. Again, we don’t know all of the facts taken into consideration by the NCAA when making the decision to suspend Bryant. However, this situation seems a bit suspect to me given Sanders statements of referring individuals to Parker, Sanders propensity to contact or mentor only the “star” student-athletes, Bryant’s lies about the entire interaction, and Bryant later signing with Parker. You understand where I am going. Maybe this whole ordeal could have been avoided if Bryant just told the truth? But it definitely makes for great debating!

I don’t necessarily agree that Bryant’s lack of class attendance or his notorious unreliability is relevant to his knowing of the NCAA rules. Whether he knew what he was doing was wrong or not, when he dishes out an answer to NCAA officials during an interview and they fire back with, “now we’re going to ask you one more time…,” it gives the connotation that he WAS doing something wrong. Did he lie because they kept saying things like that to him? Or did they say things like that to him because they were 100% sure he was flat out lying? Wickersham isn’t too clear on that.

That’s a great point. The solution Marc mentioned, and I echoed, is that a student-athlete needs to be represented by an advocate during these proceedings to prevent the NCAA from exerting complete, unfair control over the proceedings. Clearly, under what was reported, the NCAA’s asking of the same question over and over so as to get Bryant to slip up would have been objected to by any advocate.

Comments are closed.