By Stewart Mandel
July 19, 2010

When the NCAA handed down severe sanctions against USC last month, I wrote that the Committee on Infractions parlayed the Reggie Bush and O.J. Mayo scandals to send a message to athletic departments around the country about vigilance in monitoring star players' relationships with prospective agents.

Apparently that was just the beginning.

Over the past few days, we've learned that the NCAA is conducting investigations into several high-profile draft prospects' dealings with agents at both North Carolina and South Carolina. On Monday, Florida responded to an report, acknowledging it turned over information to law enforcement officials last month regarding an allegation that an agent paid former star lineman Maurkice Pouncey $100,000 prior to last year's Sugar Bowl.

And more salacious agent-related headlines could soon follow. Sports agent Darren Heitner, author of the watchdog site SportsAgentBlog, said he's received numerous tips of potential improprieties involving other current players.

"Things could get worse with the schools that have already been reported, and I wouldn't be shocked [if stories broke] at two more schools in the very near future," said Heitner. "You hear things every year. The difference this year is that it seems as though enforcement is being taken seriously."

Call it the Bush Push II.

Rachel Newman-Baker, the NCAA's Director of Agent, Gambling and Amateurism Activities, cannot comment on specific investigations (including USC's, which is currently in the appeals process). But she said her seven-member investigative team is receiving increased cooperation from parties that might have information about potential misdeeds.

"I think people are tired of watching the abuses taking place in this area," Newman-Baker said Monday.

The NCAA's probe in Chapel Hill could be particularly explosive. Investigators last week interviewed several of the Tar Heels' high-profile draft prospects, most notably star defensive lineman Marvin Austin and receiver Greg Little. The NCAA also interviewed South Carolina tight end Weslye Saunders, who is friends with several of the UNC players. A source told The State in Columbia, S.C., that investigators were looking into whether agents paid for the airfare and hotel rooms for recent trips taken by Saunders and North Carolina players. At least one of those trips was a Memorial Day weekend jaunt to South Beach, which Austin tweeted about.

Unlike the Bush scandal, which came to light only after he'd left USC -- and only then because the whistle-blower (Lloyd Lake) wasn't a certified agent with a reputation to protect -- active athletes are required to cooperate with NCAA investigators. The players interviewed were presumably required to produce documentation for their expenses. If a player is deemed to have received extra benefits -- or if he intentionally misleads investigators (like Oklahoma State's Dez Bryant last season) -- he could be suspended for part or all of the coming season.

Obviously, tales of crooked agents inducing potential clients with cash, cars or other inducements is hardly a new thing. There's no telling how many players over the years competed despite having violated NCAA eligibility rules. However, because the agents usually use "runners" to do their dirty work and take care to avoid leaving paper trails, their crimes are often difficult to prove. And the NCAA's enforcement division is woefully understaffed.

To that end, the advent of social media -- and the inevitable penchant of some young athletes to post incriminating messages or pictures to their Facebook or Twitter accounts -- has been a boon to investigators.

"We're a public society now," said Newman-Baker. "People are much more willing to put more info out there for all to see. That has definitely has had an effect on enforcement."

It's believed that the NCAA's investigation into UNC began when someone alerted the agency to Austin's tweets from Miami, which mentioned "bottles comin' like it's a giveaway" at LIV, a trendy night club at the South Beach resort Fontainbleau.

At no point, however, did Austin mention the names of any agent or runner, which means the NCAA must have connected some dots before descending on Chapel Hill. This could be a sign that its agent division -- which is just 10 years old -- is becoming savvier to the ways in which that industry works.

"In the last couple of years, we've been able to build some cases ... due to several years of networking and gaining trust, whether it's working with the pro [leagues], agents, coaches or former players," she said. "If people trust things will be done with the information if they share it, you're going to be able to turn over more rocks."

It would certainly help the NCAA's cause if other purported oversight agencies begin taking the issue of corrupt agents more seriously.

The NFL Players Association, which controls agent certification, is rarely proactive in investigating agents, and that doesn't figure to change with an impending lockout on its agenda. However, 38 states have laws on their books governing the activities of sports agents, and one of the toughest is Florida, where the agent currently under investigation regarding Pouncey (who has not yet been identified) could face civil and criminal prosecution, including jail time.

It's been nearly 11 years since the last such major case, that of disgraced agent Tank Black, whose payments to several Gators players ultimately led to both state and federal trials against him on money laundering and other charges. He served seven years in jail.

There have been few such criminal cases since.

"If a player gets penalized or a school gets penalized, that does not dissuade an agent from continuing to pass on benefits," said Heitner, whose firm, Dynasty Athlete Representation, has no current football clients. "But I would assume if an agent goes to jail, you would see a pretty big change in the landscape.

"The people I've talked to are actually hoping that something does happen. Most agents adhere to ethical standards, but it's the few bad apples that give the profession a bad name."

With the start of preseason practices looming next month, an air of suspense and uncertainty suddenly hovers over North Carolina and South Carolina, two teams whose fans had been cautiously optimistic about potential breakthrough seasons but must now wait to see whether it might lose one or more key players.

Meanwhile, no program with high-profile draft prospects can breathe easily amid the current environment, where new rumors are percolating daily -- and one regrettable tweet can send investigators scurrying to your campus.

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