Solution Long Overdue for Problem of Agents and College Sports
Florida, which has had at least 28 players charged with a crime since Urban Meyer took over the program five years ago, was in the news again. But this time, the NCAA reportedly is working with the school in an investigation on whether former offensive lineman Maurkice Pouncey accepted $100,000 from an agent while he still played for the Gators.
Over the last week, the NCAA also admitted that it's looking into the programs at North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina. Those schools are feeling the heat because they have several NFL-bound bound players who allegedly received improper benefits, highlighted by their willingness to attend a lavish party hosted by an agent this summer in Miami. So, just weeks after the University of Southern California's athletic department was slapped with four years of probation, which included a two-year bowl ban and a reduction of 10 scholarships a year for three years for its football program, the NCAA now has a golden opportunity to show it is truly serious about cleaning up the dirty side of college football.
Every case seems to deal with illegal benefits given to a player by an agent or one of his representatives. For people who have been around college football, this is nothing new.
As long as an athlete has potential to earn money playing professionally, you can count on someone trying to work their way into the picture.
It was that way before I played college football in the 1980s at USC, and it's still happening today. And you don't have to be regarded as a potential first-round draft choice to be enticed with money and gifts from agents.
As a senior playing the 1986 season for the Trojans, I was an unknown kickoff returner who had a limited amount of pass catches to my credit when I was approached by three separate agents.
The first agent (who I'll name Agent A) tried a wine-and-dine approach, but I didn't bite. Despite being offered access to many of the top parties in town and an open line of credit at a top-end restaurant, things just did not feel right and I passed on Agent A.
The second agent (Agent B) was smooth. He knew about my family background and did a good job of making me feel as if I belonged in the NFL. But Agent B also liked Ron Brown, my former roommate. Ron, an overlooked linebacker with great speed and size, had moved up the prospect chart with a great senior season.
Before I knew it, Agent B was doing his best to treat Ron and I to free meals and drinks all around Los Angeles. This became a problem because I was reluctant to deal with Agent B after I began to realize that he was using me to get to my friend. But that did not stop Ron, who eventually signed with Agent B before the 1987 draft. Ron ended up being drafted in the eighth round by the San Diego Chargers.
I already knew the third agent (Agent C) before he asked to represent me. That's because Agent C had educated me about the "anything goes" world of college football my first year on USC's campus.
The Trojans' 1982 team was loaded with NFL-ready talent and agents worked every angle in an attempt to get to the players. Agent C was regarded as a young up-and-comer with deep pockets. He exploited a relationship he had with my college girlfriend's best friend and I didn't have a clue how he did it.
By using information provided unknowingly by my then-girlfriend, Agent C was able to attend many private USC team gatherings and he eventually worked his way into the Trojans' "in crowd." Even though USC was under the NCAA spotlight (in 1982, the Trojans were placed on two years of probation, including a multi-year bowl ban and no television penalty), Agent C found a way to represent several players from that USC team and is still considered a one of the NFL's top "behind-the-scene" agents.
Now let's fast-forward to 2005 and UCLA's football program is on the rise. I was the daily beat reporter covering the Bruins for the Los Angeles Times and UCLA had gained national attention with a strong start under coach Karl Dorrell. The Bruins were winning game after game behind clutch plays made by veteran players like Drew Olson, Maurice Jones-Drew, Marcedes Lewis and Spencer Havner. Although UCLA has a long history of producing quality NFL players, it was funny to see the growing number of agents and their representatives flock to Westwood week after week.
For me, the craziness hit a peak minutes after the Bruins defeated Arizona State at the Rose Bowl to improve to 9-1. UCLA's locker room was filled with excitement and you ran into nothing but smiles as people inched around each other to get space.
That's when I ran into Agent C, who I've known since my freshman days at USC. Agent C looked a lot older but he was dressed better and walked by with a ton of confidence. We both knew why he was in the Bruins' locker room. All I could do was shake my head as he laughed it up with a new crop of players and their families.
I don't know if Agent C signed any players from that UCLA team, but his presence said it all: The more things change, the more college football remains the same.
That's why it will be intriguing to see how the NCAA deals with the nation's most recent group of programs that have been accused of playing athletes who've accepted illegal benefits.
It's a national problem that's not getting any easier to police.
But with more and more people finally accepting the fact that winning college football programs and rule-breaking agents go hand-in-hand, the NCAA has a golden opportunity to make a statement with stern penalties for any program found guilty of playing an athlete who received improper benefits. Just don't expect that to happen if history repeats itself.
Just follow the money.
Without getting too deep, the main reason why athletes get caught up accepting illegal benefits is because they feel exploited. With the NCAA generating more money than ever, skillful agents find it easy to lure athletes with cash, gifts and other perks.
This wouldn't be a problem if the NCAA truly made school presidents, athletic departments and coaches accountable. It's no secret that every big-time athletic program knows the shady characters who hang around the school's athletes. Sometimes they blend in and, other times, they stand out. But the more a team wins, the bigger issue this becomes.
The key is developing true relationships with student-athletes. The NCAA has to find a better way to force college coaches and administrators to really get to know the young athletes who play for their programs. That would help make it easier for a student-athlete to turn to someone with authority to help once off-the-field problems come up over the course of a college career.
A good place to start would be for the NCAA to install rules that encourage more personal contact instead of punishing coaches for spending too much time with an athlete during the offseason.
Another idea would be for the NCAA to create a fund for athletes who are considered high draft picks to be able to borrow from. The money pot could easily be put together by professional teams and agents, who pay for controlled access time with players during the season. Everything would be regulated and student-athletes would be taught about the agent process from the start of their college careers.
But today's major athletic departments do not want to accept accountability. They would rather win and then take a "let's cut our losses" approach when it comes to NCAA investigations.
"We're not going to look the other way like possibly Southern California did," South Carolina football coach Steve Spurrier told reporters this week after Gamecocks tight end Weslye Saunders was questioned by the NCAA about the summer agent party. "We're going to abide by the rules."
At North Carolina, athletic director Dick Baddour said the same thing as Spurrier: he admitted that the NCAA was looking into the Tar Heels' football program regarding accusations that several student-athletes had accepted improper benefits provided by outside influences that included travel, rent and jewelry.
"We work hard on our compliance program, a program of integrity," Baddour said. "We're proud of it. We are also proud that, or we think very strongly that, we get an inquiry from the NCAA that we would comply, we would do what they asked us to do and we would do it forthright and completely."
It shouldn't be a surprise that, for the first time in decades, North Carolina's defense has several players projected to be first round picks in the 2011 NFL draft.
Even Georgia is under the NCAA gun. Associate athletic director Claude Felton told reporters on Wednesday that the NCAA has requested permission to start an investigation regarding improper benefits given to All-American wide receiver A.J. Green.
But no one knows how to ride an NCAA investigation better than Alabama, which is currently being looked at for NFL-bound defensive lineman Marcel Dareus, who reportedly accepted money and gifts from an agent.
Alabama, the defending BCS national champion, was slapped on the wrist by the NCAA for breaking the rules in 2009 and rival schools have accused the Tide of cheating for years. This week, Alabama coach Nick Saban came up with a solution. Instead of working harder to educate his players on the keeping within rules, Saban wants to keep the NFL Players Association and agents out all together.
"What the NFL Players Association and the NFL need to do is if any agent breaks a rule and causes ineligibility for a player, they should suspend his [agent's] license for a year or two," Saban told reporters. "I'm about ready for college football to say, 'Let's just throw the NFL out. Don't let them evaluate players. Don't let them talk to players. Let them do it at the combine.' If they are not going to help us, why should we help them?"
But Saban also went on to say that he believes the NCAA should "take schools off the hook" for the actions of agents and players.
Translation? Don't be surprised to see Alabama end up placing itself on a friendly self-imposed probation regarding Dareus.
For the NCAA to really be taken seriously, it needs to show consistency. Discipline for having agents provide illegal benefits should be the same at every school. It should not matter if a program turns itself in or not.
But that's too much work. It's much easier for the NCAA to cut deals than to have every school go the distance fighting accusations like USC did.
Besides, the NCAA knows better than anyone that players receiving illegal benefits have been a factor at nearly every successful football program for decades.
It's always been a matter of putting in the effort to find out.