Agents predict 'free-for-all'

Just as agents have scoured high school and college basketball courts in hopes of finding the next LeBron James, the stands at college football stadiums and prep fields could begin to fill with those hopeful to represent the next Maurice Clarett.

A federal judge struck down an NFL rule that had barred college underclassmen, including Clarett, the embattled Ohio State running back who sat out the past season with nowhere to play, from entering the league's upcoming draft. Though the decision could still be overturned on appeal, Thursday's news had agents imagining how the future landscape of athlete representation might change.

"This potentially turns the agent business into the Wild Wild West," said Mark Bartelstein, a player agent who notes that he's never signed an underclassmen in basketball. "There are so many people in the business that just want to get in that they're going to give kids bad information in order to sign them. Every year, 300 players are told they are going in the first round of the NBA draft and there are only 29 picks."

Approximately 1,200 agents are registered with the NFL Players Association, more than half of them without a single client. But the prospect of convincing a standout freshman football player to turn pro might just bring out the worst in those who hope to make it big in the potentially lucrative field of player representation.

"The more players there are available, the more points of contact there are, the more opportunities there are to try to get a player to come out early," said Phil DiPicciotto, president of Octagon, one of the world's largest athlete representation firms. "The reputable firms won't go after 18- or 19-year-olds if (the players) don't have much of a chance, but there will always be those that will try to get whatever advantage they can."

With Clarett's court victory on Thursday, the Rolodexes of most football agents likely will swell with new names of pro prospects who were formerly ineligible under the NFL's existing draft rules. Since Red Grange left school to join the Chicago Bears for a $50,000 payday in 1925, the NFL has allowed only players who were three years past their high school graduating class to enter the league's draft.

"Everybody's fair game and you have to open up the rules to account for the fact that all players are recruitable," said Michael Huyghue, a former NFL executive who now runs his own sports agency, Axcess Sports. "In the past, you're only going to talk to seniors. This will change how agents have to look at high school seniors, because they only have to play one year in college and then they can come out."

"We have to hold agents off at an arm's length," Iowa head football coach Kirk Ferentz said. "Now it's going to be a free-for-all. You're going to have agents recruiting kids in their freshman year, telling (them), 'You can make it. You can do it.' But there's a danger out there."

Freshmen and sophomore football players will now be free to listen to agent talk, which has some college athletic officials concerned.

"Agents and runners will tell them what they want to hear," University of Arizona athletic director Jim Livengood said. "These people that are doing the selling are pros at it and they're good at telling them how good they are."

Northwestern athletic director Mark Murphy, who was a safety with the Washington Redskins from 1977 to 1985, said it is the athlete who ultimately must weigh the decision to test his worth with NFL teams.

"Maurice Clarett will play in the NFL," Murphy said. "But for every Maurice Clarett, there will be three or four players that think they can play."

"It's going to be a big problem because every underclassman I've ever talked to thinks he's going to be a star in the league," said Gary Wichard, a popular NFL agent who represents Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor and Baltimore Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs, the youngest player in the league this past season.

Although NFL player contracts are not guaranteed like those of NBA draft picks, Wichard said agents may be able to convince an underclassman to leave school early.

"If a 19-year-old player is projected to go in the fifth, sixth or seventh round, an agent can sell him on the idea that he can start earning big-time free agency money by the time he's 23," Wichard said.

Forty-one college juniors declared for the 2004 NFL Draft, but if freshmen and sophomores are eligible the number of declared players could double, said NFL agent Jack Mills, who represents Denver Broncos wide receiver Rod Smith and New England Patriots tight end Daniel Graham. According to estimates, approximately half of the 41 juniors eligible to be taken in this year's draft will go undrafted.

"The initial impact of this ruling might not be that great," said David Canter, the agent for Carolina Panthers running back Stephen Davis. "But in five years, it will be huge. The agent business gets more and more convoluted every year and something like this likely means that more people with less experience will try to get into football player representation."

Unscrupulous activity among agents soon could be on the increase with the larger pool of athletes eligible for the draft that awaits on the horizon.

Contact with a college player is not the issue. But providing gifts to a player with college eligibility remaining could jeopardize their standing under NCAA rules, but penalties also can levied against the agent by the NFLPA.

"The greatest affect we can have is in trying to make sure that student-athletes know what they can and cannot do," said Wally Renfro, senior advisor to NCAA president Myles Brand. "But if there is a larger population of college football student-athletes being exposed than ever before, it is only logical to assume that an increased amount of agents may try to violate the rules."

Violating the rules is one thing. Getting caught is another.

The number of certified agents makes it harder for NFLPA to monitor activity, and although 26 states and two U.S. territories (the District of Columbia and U.S. Virgin Islands) have passed the Uniform Athletes Agent Act, active enforcement remains an issue.

"What happens if you have a kid from Mississippi who plays at Tennessee who is playing a game in Georgia?" asks U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), who has pushed his federal legislation called the Sports Agent Responsibility and Trust Act (SPARTA) since 1996. The bill, which will give states' attorneys general more power to act on unlawful behavior by agents, passed the House of Representatives last year, but has not been voted on in the Senate.

"The ruling here might spur some action," Gordon said. "Now agents can tell athletes, 'You can make all this money or you could eat cafeteria food for the next three years. Why go to college when you can go straight to the boardroom?' "

But even if SPARTA passes, the government will still have to rely on information obtained by universities to be able to prosecute.

"We're always concerned about our ability to control the presence of agents," University of Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione said. "From what we know, we think we're doing fine, but it's what we don't know, what we're not able to find out, that could hurt us."

Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at darren.rovell@espn3.com. ESPN.com senior writer Tom Farrey contributed to this article.