At a regional site during the 2008 NCAA tournament, I sat at a table with an assistant basketball coach at a school in a BCS conference. The assistant had been in on some high-profile recruitments, so he understood what goes on at the top of the recruiting food chain.
The assistant estimated that most of the top 100 basketball recruits in a given year have an agent before they leave high school. They won't admit to it, and they probably haven't signed anything -- doing either would violate NCAA rules -- but those players already have secured representation thanks to a recruitment by the agents and their associates on the grassroots basketball circuit.
It's a little different in major college football. Because of the NFL rule that forces football players to wait three years after high school graduation to enter the draft, agents, financial advisors and the like don't typically begin swarming until after a very good player's freshman season and sometimes not until after his sophomore year. But the agents and their runners are ubiquitous at that point. The NCAA's Committee on Infractions punished North Carolina's football program last week in part because coaches couldn't keep players away from agents. In fact, the NCAA's agent cops have worked overtime the past few years to keep up with reports of agent-player or runner-player chicanery.
Josh Luchs, a former agent who spent about half of his career breaking all those NCAA rules against paying players, has an idea to help the problem. In his new book,
Naturally, NCAA member schools will never take Luchs' advice, because it makes too much sense.
Before you write off Luchs' idea as the raving of a former dirty agent,
The crux of Luchs' plan is simple. Allow college players to have agents, and allow those agents to loan players money. Does this professionalize those players? Of course it does. In the 1930s, a lot of schools thought athletic scholarships professionalized players. They got over it. Besides, agents pay players despite the rules, and the NCAA is essentially powerless to stop it. Luchs' idea would give the NCAA the power it needs to effectively regulate the process.
The NCAA enforcement staff has no subpoena power. It has access to the bank and phone records of current school employees and athletes, and it can punish members of those groups should they decide to remain at an NCAA school, but the association can't touch an agent, a financial advisor, a marketer or an agent runner. Agents are certified and policed by the NFL Players Association, but that group has largely yawned at infractions involving college players. In the 38 states that have adopted the Uniform Athlete Agent Act, local law enforcement agencies have the power to arrest agents or wannabe agents who pay college players. These agencies rarely do this, because they are more concerned with crimes that have victims. The Federal Trade Commission has the power to enforce the Sports Agent Responsibility and Trust Act, but it rarely does, because it also deals with real problems.
If the law enforcement groups actually enforced the laws on the books, the NCAA enforcement staff could piggyback on court cases and get information using open records laws to ferret out those who pay players. But since agent activity is such a low priority for those agencies, the NCAA is essentially on its own, fighting a battle it will never, ever win.
So why fight?
Luchs contends that the NCAA could allow players to have agents and then create its own agent certification process. For an annual fee, agents could apply for the right to represent college players. Those agents would give the NCAA access to all their bank and phone records, and the terms of any loan given to a player would be filed with the NCAA.
How would this help? Players don't want to get in trouble with the NCAA. Most don't want their program or their coaches to get in trouble with the NCAA, either. Most players would deal only with agents on the NCAA's approved list, and that's where the NCAA would have power. The NCAA could decree that any deviation from the rules would result in an agent's removal from the list. Because the best players would only deal with agents on the NCAA's list, it would be professional suicide to break the rules.
So what about the other issues? What about amateurism? Amateurism is a sham, and schools make further mockery of it every time they jump conferences for another few million dollars. Agents already pay many of the best players in football and basketball under the table. Why not bring that out into the open? Instead of Kansas State center Jamar Samuels getting $200 from his travel team coach and getting suspended for the NCAA tournament, Samuels could ask his agent for that $200 and keep on playing.
Would agents bother coaches about playing time or bend the ear of players to get second opinions on injuries? Of course they would. In some cases, they already do. But parents have done this for decades. Does the name Craig James ring a bell? Meanwhile, other players have no parental involvement in their lives or have parents unequipped to properly look out for their interests. Luchs' plan wouldn't change much, except that elite college athletes might get treated a little more like the exceptionally valuable commodities they are. Would this affect competitive balance? Not really. There is no competitive balance. The most sought-after football recruits sign with schools such as Alabama, Ohio State and Texas because those schools pump millions into their programs. The most sought-after basketball recruits would still go to Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina and Kansas. That isn't going to change. Besides, agents can find good players anywhere. Some of them are better at it than college coaches.
Despite what uninformed anti-NCAA zealots may tell you, most schools cannot afford to pay the athletes anything beyond a full-cost-of-attendance scholarship. (Many can't afford to even pay that without significant contribution from taxpayers or the general student body through bloated athletics fees.) If a school pays a salary to a football or men's basketball player, it must pay that same salary to a volleyball player or risk a massive Title IX lawsuit. Also, the NCAA was founded on the principle that schools can't pay players. Not for any noble reasons, mind you. If the players get paid, they're employees. If they're employees, they could be entitled to workers' compensation. Plus, the entire enterprise might be considered taxable by the IRS. No school in the NCAA wants that.
By allowing agents to loan money to players, the NCAA would eliminate the calls for athletes to share in the largesse of the multibillion-dollar television contracts. The market would decide which athletes got paid, because agents wouldn't bother giving money to anyone they didn't think had NFL/NBA/MLB potential. And stop right now with the argument that the athletes who don't get paid would get jealous. That's how the real world works, and isn't college supposed to prepare young people for the real world? I'm not the highest paid writer at SI. Do I wish I made what the highest paid writer makes? Absolutely. If I want to make more, I should write better stories. If such a system ever came to college sports, the aggrieved players would have an easy solution: play better.
Luchs suggests that these be real loans, not cash handouts. They'll have terms, interest rates and will come due when the player reaches the pros. Here's the catch, though: If the player doesn't reach the pros, he's off the hook. The agent assumes the risk when he chooses to loan the money, and he will have signed a loan agreement stating that he cannot seek repayment if the player doesn't become a professional athlete. This way, no one gets sued or shaken down after failing to reach his potential.
What makes Luchs' plan so sensible is that the NCAA already allows athletes to receive a loan based on future earning potential. The NCAA even helps them secure this loan. USC's Matt Barkley isn't allowed to walk into a bank and say, "I'm a famous college quarterback who may be a top five draft pick in 2013, now loan me some money." But he or any other draftable athlete
Luchs' plan would take something the NCAA already allows -- albeit on a limited basis -- and turn it into a system in which the NCAA would have actual regulatory power while also silencing many of the NCAA's most vocal critics. But the university presidents who run to the NCAA aren't ready to consider a solution this radical.
They would rather force the NCAA to keep banging its head against a wall while hoping for a different result each time.