NCAA getting tougher on schools, agents

Published 1:52 am Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Southern California was slapped with a two-year bowl ban last month. Now North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida are acknowledging that the NCAA has taken a look at their athletic departments.

All four situations appear to involve possible wrongdoing involving athletes and agents.

Is the NCAA suddenly cracking down on this sometimes-seamy side of college athletics?

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Rachel Newman-Baker, director of agent, gambling and amateurism activities for the NCAA, won’t go that far. But she said the organization believes it is making progress.

“I think people are kind of tired of sitting around and watching some of these abuses, and so I think you’re starting to see that there’s more and more people that are willing to talk,” she said. “I do think we have been able in the last couple years to develop much stronger information related to potential violations. … People understand that something will be done with that information, and they feel comfortable sharing it.”

The NCAA clearly welcomes help from would-be whistle-blowers, in part because relationships between agents and college athletes are so difficult to police.

The NCAA bars players from striking agreements with agents if they want to retain amateur status, and there are strict guidelines against accepting benefits — well-known rules mostly because they’re the ones broken in such high-profile fashion.

USC’s penalties stemmed from improper benefits given to Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush by fledgling sports marketers. Then, in just the last week, reports have surfaced that North Carolina and Florida’s football programs were being looked at in connection with possibly improper contact with agents — and a South Carolina player was being questioned in connection with the North Carolina probe.

The USC case sent a message that there may be little leniency when it comes to these issues, outside experts say.

“We’ll see what kind of evidence the NCAA is able to dig up,” said Darren Heitner, CEO of Dynasty Athlete Representation. “If there’s a lot of chatter, and nothing gets done about it, then there will be real issues with the NCAA being a legitimate institution. They have to take this seriously.”

And with the NCAA taking it seriously, schools have extra incentive to make sure their houses are in order. Southeastern Conference commissioner Mike Slive says his league brought in consultant Joe Mendes to meet with officials at all 12 schools, and several have retained him in an effort to help athletes avoid violations.

And agents take notice as well whenever there’s a show of toughness from the NCAA.

“About 10 or 15 years ago we had the same kind of situation … where there was a crackdown. They felt the behavior was getting out of control, and they stepped in, but it’s been a decade now since that happened,” said Tony Agnone, who represents about two dozen NFL players. “Any time you subject an institution to this kind of situation, it always works. It lets people know that there’s some people that are checking up on it.”

Newman-Baker said players need to be educated on what is allowed — and the NCAA needs to do some basic detective work to make sure its regulations are being followed.

That means networking with professional leagues, players’ associations, coaches and agents themselves.

“You’re only as good as the information that people are willing to share with you. Obviously, you have to spend some time with people that are in the know, that have the knowledge about what’s going on out there in the world,” she said.

It remains to be seen whether the current probes will turn up any wrongdoing, but with the college football season just around the corner the issue has moved to the forefront.

Last week, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation requiring government licensing for sports agents who want to represent students. More than three dozen states have similar legislation in place.

Now, the question is whether all this extra scrutiny can help clean up an occasionally shady area of college sports. Mark Bartelstein, who has represented players in the NBA and NFL, said if regulations aren’t enforced well, those who abide by them can end up at a disadvantage.

He hopes the NCAA is doing everything it can to monitor his fellow agents.

“It would be great if they did,” he said.