When historians look back on college football today they’ll likely dub it the “Age of Impermissible Benefits”. It seems like every day there’s a new story about an athlete who is accused of receiving money, a trip or even a car.
When I turn on the radio or open Twitter, the chatter is about what the schools or the NCAA are doing wrong. The compliance office wasn’t paying attention. The coach should have known. The coach knew and didn’t tell anyone. The NCAA takes too long to investigate. Players are tempted because the NCAA doesn’t allow them to be paid. The list goes on and on.
The focus is on the NCAA when it should be on the professional leagues.
There are three ways to curb the problem of agents, runners and boosters providing impermissible benefits to college athletes: state law, NCAA regulations and professional league regulations. Only one of those can make a difference, and here’s why.
First, let’s consider state laws. All but seven states have adopted laws regulating athlete agents. These laws often require agents to register in order to do business within the state. They also proscribe penalties for a variety of violations, including furnishing anything of value prior to the athlete signing a contract with the agent.
There are a number of problems with relying on state laws to solve the problem. First, a report last year showed that more than half the states with these laws have never revoked or suspended a license. You can bet that means they’re not enforcing any criminal penalties either.
Generally, these regulations are enforced by the Secretary of State’s office. They handle everything from elections to formation and registration of corporate entities to licensing for a number of industries. They simply don’t have the manpower to investigate or enforce these violations.
To date, the most comprehensive investigation I know of is that being conducted by the Secretary of State in North Carolina. My understanding is that investigators who normally work on white-collar crime cases were being used to investigate the allegations against University of North Carolina. Don’t expect to see this in many other states.
Many state laws also give the school the ability to sue the athlete or agent or both in order to recover any financial damages incurred because of penalties. However, this isn’t a route we see schools taking.
Now that we’ve determined that regulation by the states isn’t going to solve the problem, we turn to option number two: the NCAA. Most of the commentary I see revolves around what the NCAA is or isn’t doing to alleviate the temptation of impermissible benefits. From there, the outcry is that investigations aren’t quick enough or impose penalties that do not deter future rule-breaking.
The problem with the NCAA attempting to handle the problem is that it is largely the schools who suffer. By the time penalties are enforced, many players are either already in the pros or, as we just saw in the case of Terrelle Pryor, are able to leave for the pros instead of sticking around to face the music. So, instead the program is left to suffer the consequences, with players who weren’t even around for the mischief left to carry out the sentence.
I’m not saying that some programs don’t deserve punishment in their own right, outside of whatever the player should bear. What I’m saying is that the NCAA is often unable to punish the real criminal – the player. That’s why they’re so willing to take their chances when an agent, runner or booster offers them a little cash. The odds of getting caught are incredibly low and so often they’re able to escape without ever suffering the penalty. Aside from some sort of public shame, which I’ve not seen effect someone like Reggie Bush, the real wrongdoer escapes unscathed, with a heavier wallet.
The bottom line is that there is absolutely nothing the NCAA can do about this part of the problem. Sure, maybe they could add more staff and investigate more quickly, but most of the players who accept these sorts of benefits are far along enough in their college career to escape to the pros as soon as they smell smoke.
That leaves us with the professional sports leagues. The place where these rule-breakers escape for asylum. The entity formerly known as the NFL Players Association had the authority to suspend the license of any agent who represents players in the NFL (although with the association decertifying this is no longer the case). However, they seem to only have done so in the most egregious cases. Josh Luchs’ license was revoked after he admitted to paying dozens of college athletes over the years. Gary Wichard was suspended for nine months following information about his involvement with Marvin Austin and money that changed hands from him to UNC assistant coach John Blake. The revocations and suspensions are much fewer and far between than the number of incidents the NCAA has investigated.
The NBA Players Association has similar power and, again, exercises its power now and again. Calvin Anderson was suspended for one year following his alleged connection to USC player OJ Mayo.
My humble opinion is that the professional leagues step in only when the misconduct is so blatant their hand is forced. Then they simply slap the agent’s wrist and hand them a minimal sentence. The suspension only covers the individual agent, not the entire agency. I’m unconvinced these suspensions are any kind of real deterrent, or even that they are meant to be. Not to mention it takes two to tango and they’re only punishing one half of the offending partnership. Players walk right out of the mess they’ve left behind at their school and begin lining their wallet in the NFL or NBA.
What I am convinced, however, is that only the professional leagues and their Players Associations have the power to attack this problem by enforcing sanctions at their level on both the players and agents involved in these scandals. If a college player thought his future career in the NFL – his lifelong dream – was at risk, he might think twice. The problem is the professional leagues have no motivation to be the disciplinarians here. They’re not going to deny the next Tom Brady or Adrian Peterson entry into their league because he failed to obey rules about impermissible benefits. They’re looking out for their product first and foremost.
The professional leagues, especially the NFL and NBA, use colleges as minor leagues they don’t have to back financially. They also don’t have to back them up in any other way, including enforcing the NCAA’s rules.
Which is why I’m afraid that in the end there is no solution. Unless colleges and the NCAA are able to catch more rule-breakers and enforce penalties before these guys can make the jump to the pros, the professional leagues have little reason to get their hands dirty. Until the product they are receiving is somehow diminished, they’ll continue to do as little as possible, despite the fact that they alone hold the key to real reform.
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