By Michelle Brutlag Hosick
After a litany of high-profile investigations in the summer and fall of 2010, Division I is focused on regulating how sports agents mix with elite student-athletes.
The Division I Amateurism Cabinet and the Division I Leadership Council have taken up the issue and could make possible legislative recommendations later this year, including changes in the definition of an agent.
Both groups began discussing the issue at length within the last year. While agent issues aren’t new to the NCAA membership, the high-profile cases of the last year raised the bar on regulating them. Soon after taking the reins of the enforcement program last fall, in fact, new NCAA Vice President Julie Roe Lach heard from the membership that the interaction among agents and agent representatives and student-athletes was a primary concern.
Rachel Newman Baker, director of agents, gambling and amateurism at the NCAA, said her group has been focusing on the matter for more than a decade and developing relationships within the agent community over the last five years. Those relationships helped uncover impermissible benefits given to a number of football student-athletes in 2010.
“A lot of these cases came about as the result of source development and relationship building,” Newman Baker said. “You’ve got to get people to trust you.”
Those efforts have not gone unnoticed in the agent community. Jimmy Sexton, president of Sports Trust Advisors, an agency that represents more than 100 professional coaches and athletes (including former college football stars Tim Tebow of Florida and Jason Witten of Tennessee), said the NCAA’s AGA staff sometimes knows more about what’s happening between agents (and their representatives) and student-athletes than he does.
“Some of the issues over the last eight to 12 months have shown that they have a keen insight into what’s happening,” Sexton told the NCAA Division I Leadership Council earlier this year. “I learned some things that I was shocked were going on out there. Rachel and her staff do a superb job of looking at these matters.”
Soon after the eligibility cases made news last summer and fall, the NCAA began meeting with the NFL and the NFL Players’ Association to discuss what could be done to help clean up the environment and protect student-athletes. Currently, only the NFLPA has jurisdiction over agent activity, while the NCAA oversees student-athlete interaction with agents that can affect players’ eligibility.
Many agents skirt restrictions on their activity with student-athletes by using third parties – often students at the same school as the student-athlete – to contact a potential client. The Amateurism Cabinet and Leadership Council are considering expanding the definition of agent in order to catch some of these third parties who don’t fall under anyone’s jurisdiction.
A broadened definition could include “any person (including a contract advisor, financial planner, marketing representative, runner or individual who is employed or associated with that person) who represents directly or indirectly any individual in the marketing of his or her athletics ability or reputation, or who seeks to represent or gain financially.”
While the cabinet generally supported a definition that could capture third parties not listed in the current definition, some believe the proposal is too broad and could mistakenly sweep up high school and even college coaches. Amateurism Cabinet members expressed concern about creating a definition that would inadvertently affect coaches who were trying to help their student-athletes.
Both Newman Baker and Roe Lach said that the financial gain a person received for representing a student-athlete would have to be significant enough to warrant attention from the enforcement staff, however.
Another potential regulatory concept floated by the NFL/NFLPA/NCAA task force is the idea of agent contact calendars. The calendars would function similar to current recruiting calendars, which would provide specific rules about when football student-athletes could contact agents and what types of contact would be permissible. The calendars would be enforced by the NCAA enforcement staff, with ramifications falling on the student-athlete.
Some institutions have deployed a similar concept in recent years with mixed results.
The Leadership Council and Amateurism Cabinet have not especially supported the idea. Some members worry about the burden of enforcing the calendars, while others say it’s not appropriate to place any potential consequences on the student-athlete.
The agents that addressed the governance groups expressed skepticism, as well.
“I wish there was a way to have dead periods in our business, just from a personal standpoint,” Sexton told the Leadership Council. “I just don’t think that’s a reality in our business. A dead period is only when the crooks are contacting the players. The good guys aren’t – they’ll follow the rules.”
The governance bodies and the agents were intrigued by a possible National Agent Registry that would be created and maintained by the NCAA and available to all member institutions.
Currently, agents must register with an individual institution where they are trying to recruit a student-athlete, as well as with the NFL Players’ Association. Most states also have a registration process. A national registry operated by the NCAA would supplant the institution’s process and help compile agent information in one place.
For example, if a school in Florida had an issue with an agent, administrators in California might not be aware of it. If the registry were functioning, any school could look up an agent and see if other schools had an issue with that person.
The logistics, including what information to require from agents, how to make the information available to schools and the agents themselves and whether to charge a fee, would be figured out later. State registration would still be required.
“We envision it as something similar to our Legislative Services Database, where you have a secure password and log in to search by name and company,” Newman Baker said.
Cabinet and Council members liked the idea but wondered what would compel agents to register. They also cautioned that all institutions would have to “buy in” to the idea – and enforce it – or it wouldn’t work.
Both groups agreed with the agents in that education should be a top priority.
“The education process will stop some of the (violations) from happening,” said Mark Bartelstein of Priority Sports during the Amateurism Cabinet meeting. “There will still be people willing to do it (offer extra benefits) and people willing to take it. You won’t make it perfect, but it will help.”
The Leadership Council is expected to take the discussion forward and offer possible legislative recommendations this year.