Hoover, Ala.—Here is how fast the sport of college football now moves. A few days ago Mike Slive was working on a first draft of his annual opening remarks for SEC Football Media Days. Slive uses the opportunity to talk about the accomplishments of the conference in the past academic year and to lay out the challenges that are still before it.
There wasn’t a word about agents included in that draft.
By the time he actually delivered that message on Wednesday at the Wynfrey Hotel, the SEC commissioner had a lot to say about the current relationship between elite athletes and agents who do not play by the rules.
When Slive spoke at about 1:30 p.m. the SEC schools who were being questioned by the NCAA had grown to three: Alabama, Florida and South Carolina. Before dinner time Georgia revealed that it had heard from the NCAA which wants to come on campus and ask questions. Three of the four schools face the possibility that key players could miss games this season. A fourth, Florida, is investigating whether or not a former player, Maurkice Pouncey, took cash from an agent before his last game. If true, Florida could see its Sugar Bowl win over Cincinnati vacated.
“The world moves pretty fast, doesn’t it?” Slive told me when we talked late in the day.
Keep in mind that there is a process at work and that the players could be cleared and miss no games. They could pay the money back and miss some games. They could be neck deep in this and be banned for the season. At this point nobody knows.
Florida coach Urban Meyer was not happy about the reports that Pouncey, a first-round draft choice of the Pittsburgh Steelers, may have received $100,000 from an agent before the Sugar Bowl. He called such agents “predators who take eligibility away from kids and that’s not right.”
Alabama coach Nick Saban was even stronger in his assessment of bad agents. A story surfaced that defensive end Marcel Dareus, perhaps the best NFL Draft prospect in Tuscaloosa, had attended a now famous party given by an agent or someone representing an agent down in South Florida. If Dareus received his travel expenses and other gifts from an agent to attend that party, that is a violation of NCAA rules.
“I believe that athletes should be held accountable because they know what the rules are,” Saban said. “But the agents who do this have to be accountable as well. And it’s time that we got some help from the NFL to hold them accountable.”
Saban implied that he would not be beyond cutting back or cutting off access to NFL scouts if the league won’t help. Meyer said he would have to study it but was inclined to listen to Saban’s idea. They want the NFL Players Association to determine that if an agent breaks the rules and it costs a player some eligibility, that agent must be held accountable in some way.
Now it’s easy to bring out the age-old argument: “The coaches make a lot of money, the school makes a lot of money, the kids see this and want their share now because they don’t think it’s fair.” The statements in that argument are all accurate but it doesn’t get us anywhere because college athletes are not going to get paid. You know it and I know it.
We can rail about the hypocrisy of the system, which has been going on for several generations, or we can try to find a 21st accommodation. Notice that I didn’t say solution. There is not a solution to this problem but there are better, more innovative ways of dealing with it.
The coaches give us the righteous indignation, which is the red meat for an angry fan base. And that’s fine. But I would listen to Slive, a former attorney and district court judge. Slive told me he has looked the issue, which has been with us for a long time in many different forms. He’s decided that the time has come to quit working on the margins of the issue. It’s time, he said, for a complete paradigm shift of how schools handle elite athletes who want a future playing professional sports.
Slive believes that when faced with this kind of problem, the solution is not to try and lock down the athletes and prohibit any kind of contact with agents or NFL scouts. He believes the exact opposite should be true.
“If we had a student who was a great violinist and wanted to join a symphony and become a professional musician, there are all kinds of things the school could do to help make that happen,” said Slive. “I think the NCAA rules on this issue are as much as part of the problem as they are the solution. Instead of shutting things down for these student-athletes, we need to open up the system and give them greater access to it. We need to take the mystery out of it.”
The current rules, which limit how much contact athletes can have with agents, essentially sets up a secondary market for agents who will break the rules hoping to get a competitive edge over the more established agents.
“What we need to do is get out of the model that based on enforcement and adopt a model that’s based on assistance,” he said. “We’re supposed to be helping these kids.”
Slive can’t say this publicly but I will. The current NCAA model on agents and athletes is like prohibition was to people and booze. It created a black market for the stuff where all kinds of mischief would inevitably take place. Prohibition didn’t work so the rules had to change. We have the same set of issues with the agent problem.
There is another facet to this issue that people don’t like to talk about. At the end of the day, the athletes really don’t trust the adults who are running the system. The adults say they working with the best interests of the athletes involved. I think most athletes believe that the adults are looking out for their employer first. So when somebody comes along and points out that you, young football star, are putting money in all of these people’s pockets and you aren’t getting squat, it becomes a pretty compelling argument. I’m not sure I could resist it at the age of 19 or 20.
The answer is to give the legitimate agents—and there are so many good ones out there—GREATER access and to give the student-athlete with pro potential a clearly defined road map on how to get there and also get the most out of his college experience.
It’s one thing for somebody who works for the university to tell an athlete he shouldn’t break the rules. The athlete can look at that adult and say to himself: “You just want me on the field to help you win.”
But it is another thing entirely to hear an established agent tell a player over and over: “Don’t break the rules because it makes the NFL question your character and that will cost you money. Here is how you handle it.”
All I know is that at Wednesday’s SEC Media Days, Urban Meyer, Nick Saban, and Mike Slive all said they wanted change and were willing to work at it. That probably means that something will get done.
So what’s the next step? Should schools respond to this by locking down their players and giving no access to the NFL or agents? Or should they go in the totally opposite direction: Throw open the system and take the mystery out of it? Give these kids all the information and access they need?
Would there still be problems? Of course. As long as there is a poor kid and somebody flashing cash, women, cars, parties, etc., this is going to happen. What we’re discussing here is a new way of thinking to manage the issue because what college football is doing now, in the 21st Century, is clearly not working.
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Programming note: Our “Talkin’ Football” second day coverage of SEC Media Days will be shown tonight at 6 p.m. on CSS. Today’s coaches’ interviews include Mark Richt, Bobby Petrino, Steve Spurrier and new Vanderbilt coach Robbie Caldwell. Check us out!