Wednesday October 13th, 2010

If you have not read George Dohrmann's outstanding piece about agent Josh Luchs paying college players, you should. Like, now. It's one of those stories that shines a huge spotlight on a world we know exists but rarely see.

It is tempting to combine the Luchs revelations with the ongoing investigations at North Carolina, Alabama, South Carolina and other schools and conclude that the NCAA is making real progress on this stuff. Tempting, but wrong. It is far more likely that this is so widespread that the NCAA will never really curb the problem.

The NCAA is trying to enforce a socialist system in a capitalist society with a small staff and no legal means to do so. As long as college students need money and agents are willing to pay them -- two pretty safe assumptions -- how can the NCAA stop it from happening?

Luchs matter-of-factly talks about paying players over almost two decades -- and part of what makes it compelling is that he names names. Why is that compelling? The names aren't all big, and this will not spark outrage against the offenders, like steroid revelations have. It might not even spark a single NCAA investigation -- the NCAA statute of limitations has apparently expired in every case.

No, what makes it compelling is that Josh Luchs was just one unknown guy who decided to give players some money so he could try to be their agent. And he ended up paying a slew of players at various schools with no connection to each other. It makes you wonder how many other Josh Luchses are out there, paying guys like Ryan Leaf and Jamir Miller and Chris Mims and Santonio Holmes.

How can the NCAA stop this? A system of rules enforcement will never catch every criminal -- if we could come up with one, we'd probably use it to catch every murderer or rapist or thief. But a good system of enforcement catches a high enough percentage of rule-breakers that the threat of getting caught is a big enough deterrent for most people.

Luchs' description of his dealings with Leaf illustrates why he paid the Washington State quarterback: Leaf had credit card debt. Luchs gave him money while Leaf was still playing. The day after losing the Rose Bowl, Leaf signed with another agent.

At that moment, the NCAA was almost powerless. Leaf was a former player and not required to talk to anybody. Luchs was angry, but he risked losing his career if he admitted to paying a player. The NCAA would have needed a whistle-blower, some damning evidence, or both to have any kind of case. Nobody would know anything about this today if Luchs hadn't left the business and decided to tell his story.

So what do you do? Keep players from having credit card debt? (This might require -- gasp! -- paying them.) There is a reason that it took the NCAA years to conclude the Reggie Bush/USC case and the Michigan basketball scandal -- years after those violations were first reported in the media. Once players leave school, the NCAA doesn't have a lot of options for prosecution.

SI.com's Stewart Mandel wrote a very good story recently about the agent-busters in the NCAA's Agent, Gambling and Amateurism Activities division ... and, as he noted, it is a four-person group. Four people. For the whole NCAA. Yes, sure, it's part of the bigger enforcement division, but that should still tell you that the NCAA is fighting a forest fire with a water gun.

That is not a shot at the enforcement staffers, many of whom are vigilant in pursuing wrongdoing. They simply don't have the staff or money to fully combat the problem.

The NCAA could make one huge, fundamental change to its system. Right now, compliance officers work for the universities they police -- their very existence is a conflict of interest. If those officers answered to the NCAA, but worked on individual campuses and had free reign to investigate there, that would give the NCAA a fighting chance. (The schools would have to pay the NCAA the money that they currently spend on compliance.) But that's just a crazy sportswriter idea.

In the meantime, money will flow everywhere. Once in a while, a great reporter will expose illegal payments, or a strange combination of events will force somebody to turn over information. And once in a while, somebody like Josh Luchs might decide to spill everything he knows.

Most of the time, though, when players take money, nobody will have any idea. To stop agents from paying players, the NCAA will have to stop college students from wanting money and thinking they're invincible -- and stop agents from wanting to land clients. Good luck with that.

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