Under-the-radar 'freelancers' a main source of college corruption

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The company is operated by Matt Whittier and appears to be a one-stop concierge business for professional athletes. Among the services that O-D Life claims to offer: "Business Management & Development," "Wealth Management," "High-Profile Investments," "Public Relations & Marketing Services," "NFL Rules Advisement" and "Family & Substance Abuse Counseling."

Whittier is neither a lawyer, nor a registered financial advisor, nor a counselor. He does help operate Offense-Defense Sports, or O-D Sports, which runs youth football camps all over the country. That gives Whittier access to some of the nation's best talents at a young age, and he boasts that more than 350 O-D Sports alumni have played in the NFL.

There is one notable omission from O-D Life's long list of services: It doesn't represent athletes in contract negotiations. It offers to help clients vet agents -- to alert them to those known for "unscrupulous practices" -- but technically O-D Life is not a sports agency, and Whittier is not an agent. This is an important distinction, because it means that O-D Life is not subject to the rules and regulations of the NFL Players Association (NFLPA), which certifies player agents; and, depending on one's interpretation of a particular state's sports agent laws, O-D Life and Whittier may not be governed by those, either. The company operates in a vast gray area, free to contact and assist college athletes without restraint (and, if it serves its purpose, to heap rewards upon them).

Over the past five years, the NCAA and its member schools have seen a spike in the number of companies and individuals approaching star football players. Agents were once the lone concern, but now financial advisors and marketing representatives, former players and coaches, and even fitness trainers are courting young players. They share the same motivation as the agents -- to profit on a star athlete's future -- but not the notoriety or the infamy.

These individuals are the source of much of the corruption in college football today, and are at the center of NCAA investigations underway at schools such as North Carolina and Georgia, as well as probes at other schools that are expected to be made public in the coming weeks.

"The agents have always been a problem, and they still are, but the others, the guys we call the freelancers, may be a bigger issue now," said an NCAA source. "A lot of what we are seeing now -- the lavish parties players are attending, the trips -- it is coming from them."

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To understand who the freelancers are and how they operate, you first have to differentiate them from the agents and the many people who do their bidding.

Officially, there are 776 individuals certified by the NFLPA to represent players as agents. But the NFLPA also requires agents to register anyone in their network who might get a cut of a player's contract. If you broaden the definition of who is an agent to include those who help recruit players for a particular agency and stand to get a percentage, no matter how small, of a player's compensation, the pool of "agents" gets so deep that it can be hard to see the bottom.

Former players are common points of contact for agents at a school. "I will go to a kid who has just graduated and who didn't make it in the NFL and say, 'Hey, you want to get a little something for those four years you spent at that school?' " said one of the five agents interviewed by SI.com for this story.

The former player will stay near campus and use his contacts with his old teammates to set up meetings with the agent. It looks innocent enough -- a former player sticking around for an extra year to hang with his friends -- but he is usually paid for his troubles, typically a flat fee of a couple of thousand dollars or, in some cases, a percentage of the player's take.

Star players are used differently, agents say, and that is one of the points of interest in the NCAA's investigation at North Carolina.

In the summer of 2009, Tar Heels defensive linemen Marvin Austin and Cam Thomas traveled to Proactive Sports Performance in Thousand Oaks, Calif., a training facility less than two miles from agent Gary Wichard's offices, and where Wichard's clients routinely work out. Kentwan Balmer paid for the trip, Thomas told the Raleigh (N.C.) News & Observer. Balmer, who declined to say whether he did so in an interview with The Associated Press last month, is a former North Carolina player and a Wichard client, and thus the trip has come under NCAA scrutiny.

Wichard has claimed no wrongdoing by either he or Balmer, but one agent, speaking generally and not about Wichard and North Carolina in particular, told SI.com that agents will often ask a current client to pick up the tab for a potential client so as to get that player to a meeting. The agent then reimburses his current client.

The North Carolina case shined a light on another group of hopeful profiteers: college coaches. That college coaches recruit for agents is a systematic problem that runs deeper than most fans realize. As agents describe it, the most common occurrence is that a former NFL player goes into college coaching and then promotes his old agent to his players. If that agent lands one of those players, the college coach gets either a flat fee or a percentage of the player's rookie contract. It is one of the most effective ways to recruit, agents say, because players often see their position coaches as trusted advisors.

The NCAA has long been aware of this problem (at a recent NCAA regional rules seminar, one of the highlighted topics for discussion was "Agents compensating assistant and position coaches to recruit student-athletes"). The challenge is determining when a coach's words of wisdom cross over into solicitation.

John Blake, North Carolina's defensive line coach until he resigned on Sept. 5, once worked for Wichard's company, Pro Tect Management. At numerous stops during Blake's college coaching career -- from Oklahoma to Mississippi State to Nebraska to North Carolina -- his players have ultimately signed with Wichard. Yet only recently did this relationship raise eyebrows at the NCAA. (Wichard has denied that Blake helped him procure clients. Blake couldn't be reached for comment.)

Agents also cultivate a relationship with personal trainers who are popular with players, using them to help recruit.

"There are facilities that athletes want to work out at, those that are known for helping kids get drafted higher," an agent said. "So a player calls that facility to see about working out there and is told that all the spots are filled. But then he is told that [an agent] has purchased time at the facility, and that if he were to sign with [that agent] he could work out there."

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If those cozying up to kids consisted solely of agents and the many people working on their behalf, the system would be easy enough to understand. But muddying the waters is the fact that any of the above -- runners, college coaches, trainers, etc. -- might be freelancers. Freelancers are not affiliated with an agent, but still try to get in with players so they can sell them to the highest bidder or profit in some other way.

Ongoing NCAA investigations at Georgia and North Carolina include examinations of the relationship that former Tar Heels defensive back Chris Hawkins has had with players. ESPN reported that Hawkins shopped players to different agents, making him, as one person close to the investigation termed it, "an equal-opportunity" runner.

The most aggressive of the freelancers are the financial advisers and marketing representatives, and for a simple reason: Big money is at stake. An NFLPA-certified agent receives no more than 3 percent of a player's compensation, the lowest of any major sport. But there are no restrictions on the percentage taken from marketing deals (around 20 percent is the norm) and money managers work on commission or collect fees.

"I stop collecting when a player's career ends," said one agent, "but the money managers keep getting paid. And for the big stars, the marketing opportunities continue long after a guy is done playing."

The Reggie Bush scandal at USC is often erroneously referred to as an example of a player and his family taking money from agents. But the three individuals whom the NCAA found to have provided Bush with improper benefits -- Lloyd Lake, Michael Michaels and Mike Ornstein -- were actually marketing reps. Lloyd and Michaels were attempting to start a marketing company with Bush as their first client, and Ornstein is a longtime marketing executive who still operates today.

Investigators have found that financial advisors are particularly creative recruiters. One tactic gaining popularity of late in recruiting hotbeds like Miami, Los Angeles, Houston, Dallas and Atlanta is for the financial advisor to reach out to people who were at one time close with current college stars, such as a former high school teammate. The advisor encourages that person to reconnect with his old friends and also reach out to other college stars from the same city. That person essentially becomes a runner for the financial advisor, and begins taking care of the college athletes. When they are back home, he shows them a good time, taking them to clubs, dinners, etc., all financed by the advisor. In a hotbed like Miami, there might be three or more runners for financial advisors and/or agents competing for the favor of the same college athletes when they are in town.

With agents, there is a barrier for entry into the market: NFLPA certification, which includes having a graduate degree and passing a certification test. But there is nothing stopping any average Joe from waking up one day and calling himself a marketing rep or money manager and beginning to contact athletes.

Earlier this year, Michigan football players and aspiring pros Brandon Graham and Brandon Minor asked two fellow students they trusted -- Daniel Sillman and Jordan Klein -- to help them pick an agent. Less than a year later, Sillman opened Compass Management Services, which, in partnership with his father's asset management firm, handles the financial concerns of those two NFL players and hopes to add others.

Sillman said concern for athletes being taken advantage of financially led him to start Compass Management Services. His intentions seem pure, but the fact remains that less than a year ago he was a college student, and now he is managing two NFL players' money.

"There are some good people who care about protecting the players' money," said one agent. "But many of the finance and marketing guys are out of control. They will offer kids lines of credit, $25,000 or $50,000 or more. They will pay for them to go to parties, give airline tickets to their families. They are breaking [NCAA] rules far more often than agents."

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Companies like O-D Life, one-stop shops for whatever needs an athlete might have, are a relatively new phenomenon.

Whittier said he started O-D Life because he got tired of seeing players who attended the O-D Sports football camps over the years leave the game penniless, victims of unscrupulous agents and advisors. He said other business ventures, such as the football camps, make enough money to allow O-D Life to operate as a nonprofit foundation.

In its business of vetting agents for clients, Whittier says that O-D Life requires agents to fill out a questionnaire and that the company does not demand a cut of the agent's commission.

"Nothing we get is mandatory," Whittier explained. "If the agent decides that getting a client without having to do any of the legwork is worth giving something to us, that is fine. All of that money goes to former players, to getting them health care and other help."

But in an e-mail sent out to at least one agent earlier this year, Whittier said he would like the agent to be among those he recommended to players. "No need to fill anything out," he wrote. In a later e-mail, he proposed that O-D Life would get half (1.5 percent) of the agent's commission on any of the referred players he signed.

One of Whittier's and O-D Life's other endeavors is real estate. On Whittier's Twitter account, he posted a tweet stating: "For any Pro Athletes" that includes a link to a PDF brochure for a housing development in Key West, Fla., which he tabbed "the first ever 100% sports professionals private neighborhood." The brochure includes maps with arrows pointing to "O-D Life Homes" and the "O-D Life Private Marina." It is, in short, a pitch to athletes to buy land.

Whittier said that athletes should invest because it offers a safe haven for their families away from photographers and other interlopers.

"I talked to a real estate agent in Key West and the athletes will be getting these homes for at least $1 million less that the current market value," he said enthusiastically. "In 12 months, they could flip these homes for $1 million or $2 million in profit. If they wait four years to sell, it could be $4 million or $5 million."

When asked if he could understand why some people would question his motives, Whittier said: "We've been doing this, the camps and others things, for 42 years and we are a family business, and that is how we look at our athletes. They are our family. ... I've got pages and pages of examples when agents lied and took advantage of players and basically stole their money. That's not us. We're not agents. We're in it for the players. All we want to do is help players."

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story reported that Golden Tate and his mother, Yolanda, were listed with the NFLPA as recruiters for agent Todd France. That information came from an NFLPA spokesperson. The NFLPA later contacted SI.com and said that the information it provided was erroneous.