By Mark Henricks
As controversy and lawsuits swirl around former University of Southern California and current New Orleans Saints football player Reggie Bush about whether his family accepted improper benefits from agents’ representatives, the question of how widespread the problem is — and what to do about it — remains as fluid and evasive as the running back himself.
Allegations say Bush family members took money and gifts, including free clothing, makeovers and transportation worth more than $100,000, from two marketing agents during his USC career. Bush and agents Michael Michaels and Mike Ornstein have denied the allegations. But nobody is denying that the problem of student athletes being compromised by involvement with agents is far-reaching, frequent and, so far, intractable
Such scandals can significantly impact programs, agents and athletes. “Violations of NCAA rules regarding agents and amateurism could result in harsh penalties on the team and the university,” according to Rachel Newman-Baker, director of agents, gambling and amateurism at the National Collegiate Athletic Association. “These university sanctions could include the repayment of monies received from NCAA championship competition, forfeiture of contests and other penalties.”
USC could, for instance, lose its share of the PAC-10 conference’s $14 million payday due to sending a representative to the 2006 Rose Bowl. Because of the NCAA investigation, USC Assistant Athletic Director Tim Tessalone declined to comment on the Bush affair or the general question of student and agent involvement.
Ralph Cindrich, a Pittsburgh sports attorney and players’ agent, adds, “It can be devastating to a program if officials at the university have knowledge of violations that may have taken place. There’s always the threat of loss of honors and bowl money and the like. If it went beyond that to where you had conduct at the university that was viewed in a poor light by the NCAA, it could affect the program and result in loss of scholarships.”
Athletes, on the other hand, risk less. Newman-Baker says students whose transgressions come to light while they are still in school may lose eligibility, trophies and honors. Bush, for instance, could have to relinquish his Heisman Trophy. Beyond that, since he is now a professional, the NCAA can’t reach him, and the National Football League isn’t concerned about what went on in college.
Agents may be the most vulnerable of all, according to Cindrich. “There’s a monstrous risk there if you care about your work and your reputation,” he says. “That’s not to mention the severe legal ramifications for violating the rules.”
Agents may lose state licensing and no longer be able to practice their profession. In the worst case, an agent could be convicted of criminal violations and face jail time. “The agents are at the biggest risk,” Cindrich says. “There’s no doubt an athlete is culpable or has legal responsibility. But I’m not aware of too many situations where they have felt the full effect of the force of the laws.”
That’s not because the problem isn’t widespread. Newman-Barker notes the NCAA doesn’t limit agent control efforts to the major colleges. “It is a concern and consideration for all NCAA divisions,” she says. “We have rules and bylaws in each of the three divisions that moderate and govern the issue.”
Cindrich agrees that problems occur everywhere. But the agent, a former NFL player drafted from the University of Pittsburgh in 1972, also feels abuses are less common today. “As prevalent as it is, it’s not an epidemic as it once was,” he says.
Newman-Baker, however, disagrees and says the frequency is increasing. She adds that the NCAA is also concerned about changes in the ways agents communicate with players, specifically through social networking web sites such as Facebook and MySpace. “It is an issue that is definitely top of mind for us. Furthermore, our Agents and Amateurism Subcommittee is looking at this issue and possible protocols and programs that we should put in place,” she says.
Voluminous regulations already govern agent contacts with students. NCAA rules and interpretations prohibit amateur athletes from receiving a wide array of benefits, including free transportation. None has been entirely effective, but education could help, Newman-Baker says, pointing to NCAA-produced videos, information packets and other resources to guide students and families in interactions with agents.
Schools also watch over agents, she notes. “We’ve talked to schools that film and monitor the tunnel into the practice and playing fields to make sure there aren’t agents in that proximity,” she says. “The Southeastern Conference has a rule that agents are not allowed to have sideline passes during games. In addition, a number of NCAA member institutions conduct an annual Agent Day, which allows agents on campus in a controlled environment in which student-athletes can ask questions and hold meetings involving prospective agents and the student-athletes’ parents, compliance coordinators and other athletics staff. Many of these same schools provide a preparatory education session in the weeks leading up to the Agent Day where student-athletes engage in role playing and mock interviews, as well as listen to guest speakers who share their experiences.”
Any approach requires cooperation among parties whose interests are not necessarily aligned. For instance, Cindrich suggests that moving the NFL combine workout date further past the end of the college season would give players more time to finish amateur careers and line up agents. “That might be one solution,” he says, “but I’m not sure that works for the pros.”
Today, agents begin contacting students long before they are under the wing of the NCAA. “It hits guys when they’re in high school and junior college,” Cindrich says. “It’s part of the mentality, and I don’t see any immediate fix that would eradicate the problem.”
Though the NCAA may mull new online networking rules, Cindrich expects little change, either in regulations or violations. “You can require agent checks and all that and you can put some teeth in the laws like Texas and Florida have done,” he says. “But you’re still going to have people who are going to take their shots.”