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Angst Over Agents

Grapevine, Tex.—Fifteen years ago, Dan Beebe, commissioner of the Big 12 Conference, floated a proposal aimed at lessening the influence of agents on college athletes.

Make it legal, he said at the time. Allow an elite athlete to have an agent, so long as the university has legal recourse—guaranteed by a contractual agreement—in case the agent does anything to jeopardize the athlete’s eligibility.

That idea never went anywhere. But agents’ presence on the college scene, particularly in baseball, football, and men’s basketball, has only intensified since then. Gaining access to athletes is easier now for agents than ever before, thanks to the abundance of personal information athletes supply on social-networking sites. With higher salaries in the pro leagues, meantime, agents stand to profit more from their relationships with athletes than in previous years—making their pursuit even more aggressive.

And so Beebe has called, once again, for casting off the restrictions.

“Put sunshine on it, and you know who you’re dealing with,” he said Sunday afternoon to faculty athletics representatives from Division I-A institutions who have gathered here at a hotel outside of Dallas for their annual meeting. “I think it’s time to introduce some sort of radical thinking into the equation here.”

“Radical” doesn’t quite describe the approach that elite NCAA programs have taken thus far to deal with agents who go after college athletes. Agents—two of whom participated in the panel discussion—say the NCAA’s rules are out of touch and ineffective. And the NCAA admits outright that it has no jurisdiction over regulating agents’ activities (that task falls to state agencies or unions like the NFL Players’ Association).

So athletics officials (along with faculty representatives) continue to wrestle with a question that has dogged the enterprise for decades: What is the role of agents in amateur sports?

Critical—but complicated, said agent Rick Smith, president and general counsel of Priority Sports & Entertainment. “Not all agents are bad,” he said. Athletes who are about to be drafted need help preparing for and negotiating the fast-paced pro-sports world they’re about to enter into, he said.

But for every “good” agent, there are countless more who cut corners and mislead athletes, said Pat Dye Jr., an agent and president of ProFiles Sports Inc. “There is no fear factor out there for people in our business,” he said. “It’s not a secret who the bad people are … and we’ve got to expose them.”

So far, attempts to do so have largely fallen flat. Although 40 states have adopted laws to regulate the interaction between agents and athletes, with failure to comply deemed a felony, the laws are rarely enforced. And, despite NCAA rules, many athletes continue to take up with agents—who may not have their best interests in mind.

The problem will never be fully fixed, said Rachel Newman-Baker, the NCAA’s director of Agent, Gambling, and Amateurism Activities.

“There should be no expectation that we’re going to eradicate this problem,” she said. “Bad people are still going to do bad things.”

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