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Sports Agents = The Issue de Jour

The following is a guest post from a good friend and extremely intelligent sports business professional, Marc Isenberg (@marcisenberg).  He wrote a great book titled, Money Players, and continues to help student-athletes manage their careers as a part of a new company, INsight Group.

College sports has a handful of core problems: “One and done,” academics, commercialism, gambling and agents. When someone does something wrong or a scandal breaks, we put the klieg lights on the people and the problems. The NCAA has made agents the issue de jour. Rachel Newman Baker, NCAA’s head of agent, gambling and amateurism activities, told “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.” Alabama football coach Nick Saban also fanned the flames when he equated unscrupulous agents to pimps.

Some believe agents and their runners are the bane of college athletics. The case many coaches and athletic administrators make against agents is impressive:

  • They pay players, their families, and anyone else who might influence players to sign with them.
  • They have no regard for NCAA rules.
  • They don’t care about players’ welfare, especially their education.
  • They influence high-school players in their recruitment.
  • They operate outside the law.
  • They all cheat, even the so-called super agents.
  • They give bad advice when it comes to leaving school.
  • They have no integrity.

(Of course, many of the same things could be said about some college coaches.)

Not surprisingly, NCAA and its members have stepped up its efforts to combat the “agent problem.” On the flipside, we should not lose sight of the fact that agents play a vital function in protecting the interests of their clients. Of course, the focus is on the bad apples, which spoil the whole batch – and give credence to those who want to demonize agents.

The mounting frustration is understandable, but the finger pointing ends up clouding the real issues. Like a lot of things in college athletics, the real world is far different than the lofty ideals and the news releases.

Athletic departments are adopting protocol about agents contacting their athletes that is far more restrictive than NCAA rules.

Here is a snippet from an athletic department regarding its agent policy:

“Athletes … will be instructed not to give out phone numbers or addresses. All mail should be directed to the athlete in care of the interview coordinator. Athlete agents shall make no phone calls to athlete until completion of final game of senior year.”

Another school goes a step further:

“All correspondence from athlete agents should be sent in duplicate. The original will be given to the student-athlete, and the other will be kept in the Compliance Office in the athlete agent’s file. (School) will not provide the addresses or telephone numbers of student-athletes. Furthermore, we request all agents and advisors to refrain from telephone contacts and face-to-face encounters with student-athletes, or their parents and relatives until the student-athlete has exhausted his or her NCAA eligibility.”

The fact is, schools cannot effectively police unethical agents. Such restrictions can have the unintended effect of driving unsavory agent activities further underground.

So, what is the solution? Solving the agent problem is similar to the pursuit of peace in the Middle East (without the actual bloodshed, of course). Factions are so entrenched that reasonable compromise becomes impossible.

There is a current proposal to ease up agent restrictions. No one is suggesting agents should be allowed to pay college athletes, but they should be allowed to provide them competent counsel.

Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe agrees: “Let agents have contracts with players and the schools. 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.” There’s definite merit to Beebe’s proposal.

On the other hand, two college basketball coaches I greatly respect point out the potential downside of embracing agents. Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim calls it “about as bad an idea that I can think of off the top of my head. It’s putting the wolves in the sheep’s den.” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski believes that if the NCAA goes down this path, agents will get involved “even earlier. If you open that door even a little …”

Others think the NCAA and athletic departments need to batten down the hatches. Until the NCAA membership institutes new rules, the NCAA will continue its aggressive approach, monitoring the activities of high-profile players like never before. We definitely don’t need additional NCAA agent rules, especially with the problems the NCAA has enforcing existing rules.

My suggestions:

  1. Allow athletes to get the counsel they need. Elite college athletes should absolutely be allowed to consult with informed experts about their prospects. These experts are called agents. Good agents are well-positioned to properly advise amateur athletes about the market realities.
  2. Improve the message to athletes. I totally support NCAA rules prohibiting athletes from accepting benefits from agents. When I speak with college athletes, I say, hypothetically, if tomorrow the NCAA said agents could pay players, I would absolutely argue that agents are the last people on earth athletes should be taking money from. Even if the NCAA never finds out that an athlete violated a rule, accepting “gifts” makes them beholden to an unethical and quite possibly incompetent agent. These arrangements always come with strings attached, which can be far more costly in the long run.
  3. Improve education. College athletics needs to do a better job preparing athletes for the business of pro sports. Agent education should involve more than scaring them about the dangers of associating with unscrupulous characters. It should be about helping athletes (and their families, too) understand the roles agents and others play in helping athletes. Until we all do a better job helping athletes understand the connection between whatever rules exist and why it is in their best interest to follow the rules, we’re never going to get in front of the problem. I devoted an entire book to the topic of preparing athletes to succeed in the business. Along with my business partner, Ryan Nece, who played seven seasons in the NFL, we work with athletic departments to prepare student-athletes and their families for success in sports, business and life.

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.

2 replies on “Sports Agents = The Issue de Jour”

The NCAA is money hungry and hypocrites for what they are doing to agent involvement. If the NCAA could find a way to get paid they would allow agents the freedom to do whatever. For example, if the NCAA implemented a fee for agents to be involved and the fee went straight to their pockets, they would be fine with agent involvement. I love college sports, and am extremely happy that college football starts tonight, but the NCAA has taken the fun out of the game, and now wants to blame everything on the agents.

The current state of the industry is shameful with all these shady acts being thrown in the media fire. Though many are bad eggs there are those still straight and narrow. May they be the ones to move forward.

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