Wednesday August 18th, 2010

This might be the offseason for college sports, but, nonetheless, summer has been chock full of more inspiring stories of skulduggery in higher athletic education. My favorite brouhaha has been provided by Nick Saban, the dictatorial football coach at the University of Alabama, who's thrown a conniption fit about agents -- they who have the audacity to interest college players in the possibility of actually getting paid for their labors.

Saban flat-out likened sports agents to "pimps." Now, understand this. Nick Saban makes $4 million a year from Alabama -- plus more in side deals -- and while he takes home this bounty, all the players he coaches are forbidden, by antiquated amateur rules, to earn a living. Meanwhile agents, who are honorable brokers in all other parts of the entertainment world -- representing musicians, actors, writers and, of course, all hard-working athletes except American collegians -- help guide and make more money for their clients, taking a reasonable legal fee for service.

But in bringing the subject up -- even commandeering a national conference call last week with other coaches and the NFL commissioner himself -- Coach Saban made me think exactly the reverse: How advantageous it would be for all concerned if young American athletes were permitted to sign and be educated by reputable agents, even as soon as they're recruited in high school.

First of all, this would clear out a lot of the scummy leeches that now attach themselves to vulnerable young players and their families. College agents, like the ones who work the pro leagues, would be vetted and certified. Of course there are scoundrels in the business, but there are also unscrupulous coaches, athletic directors, boosters and college presidents.

Agents should then be allowed to work up-front deals for the players, with the understanding that they would be repaid when the player hits the pro jackpot. Some blue chippers -- especially in basketball -- might sign a bonus right out of high school. Other late developers might not be worth an agent's advance till much later.

It would simply be a future's market, and if the player is hurt or fails to pan out, he owes nothing to his agent. Hey, sometimes there is a drought that sinks soybean futures too. But meanwhile, the agent has an investment and the player is making honest money, based on his assessed potential, that costs his school absolutely nothing.

Who knows, with an actual income, some happier athletes might even stay in college for more seasons. And boosters, who now might be -- heaven, help us -- slipping money under the table to players, could invest legally with agents to help their dear alma mater.

Letting honest, professional agents advise and support innocent young athletes would remove so much hypocrisy from the system. It is not agents who pimp, it is college athletics, and I thank Coach Saban for further bringing this injustice to my attention.

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