There's no denying the trend. Southern California, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina and Alabama have all recently made headlines for their proximity to -- or in USC's case, punishment for -- potential NCAA infractions, and the stories all have one thing in common. They involve agents.
Agents have long been the behind-the-scenes scourge of big-time college sports -- especially in college basketball, thanks to the morass of behind-the-scenes AAU connections and sneaker contracts. The NCAA has never had much success keeping up with these connections. But the latest rash of agent-related NCAA investigations has the organization seeming, well, downright vigilant. Rachel Newman-Baker, director of agent, gambling and amateurism activities for the NCAA, went so far Tuesday as to tell the Associated Press something akin to "look out, because we get it now":
"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."
Of course, "getting it" and actually ceasing the practice are two entirely different things, and the NCAA is a long, long way away from cutting agents out of amateur sports. CNBC's Darren Rovell estimates that "at least 50 college players (between football and basketball) get paid by agents in varying amounts each year." Rovell thinks the NCAA should wait to make any bold proclamations about its newfound agent punishments until that tide is reversed, and he believes the NCAA is partly to blame for its own mess:
Almost 30 years ago, sports agent David Falk was talking with coaches and commissioners about helping the organization get on the same page with the professional leagues as far as agent regulation has been concerned. Had the NCAA aligned itself with the professional sports unions, or even the states that have agent laws that regulate agents, it could have shared resources. It could have been in a better position to catch athletes and agents who make deals.
Until the NCAA forges that partnership -- and lobbies the federal government for a national law regulating agent behavior -- the organization might be best reserving its bold proclamations.
Still, those types of partnerships (not to mention an actual law) are incredibly difficult to obtain. They take years and years of work, work that requires a coherent meshing of staffs, policies, resources and ideals. They might never happen.
Which is why it might not be such a bad thing for the NCAA to do a little boasting after all. Agents have been around forever, and they're not going away anytime soon. But if the NCAA has suddenly acquired an ability to catch even a fraction of the agent-athlete infractions that occur on college campuses and AAU tournaments every weekend -- and it can hammer that point home both with investigations and the occasional "Guess what, we're watching you now" warning in the media -- then the NCAA can do something perhaps more effective than partnering with pro leagues or beefing up its own drastically understaffed team. It can intimidate schools into regulating themselves.
Schools' compliance offices have just as much difficulty keeping agents away from players as the NCAA does. But they're in a much better position to do so. From the Bylaw Blog:
But the more prudent course of action is to step up monitoring of possible agent activity and extra benefits. Contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t mean babysitting star athletes 24/7. It means demanding more documentation from athletes for big ticket items like cars, off-campus housing, and trips to tryout with professional teams. It means checking recurring names on pass lists for a possible connection to agents. It means making passes of student-athlete profiles on social networking sites. Certainly it’s more work, but not an excessive amount.
[...] The agent problem was long thought to be a Gordian knot: an unsolvable puzzle. Like Alexander the Great, the NCAA was unable to untie the knot, in this case find a way to keep agents away from student-athletes and campuses. Rather than giving up, the NCAA decided to just cut the knot in half, i.e. investigate and punish universities and student-athletes consistently and severely enough that it is no longer worth it for players to accept benefits from agents and for universities to ignore it.
There are other things to be done. The NCAA could relax its rules on student-only dorms, making it easier for schools to keep students away from the young agent runners that infiltrate campuses and build (or maintain) the secretive relationships that constitute athlete-agent wrongdoing. It could raise the value of athletics scholarship to help keep athletes from accepting outside money and gifts. It can identify agent-based organizations with sketchy relationships to programs and cut them out of the loop. (Exhibit A: the Pump brothers.)
There are a lot of different ways to make it easier for schools to monitor their own athletes. But whatever happens, the NCAA's current course of action is the best one. The organization can't do it alone. By putting the onus on schools, by looming over coaches and athletic directors with a vaguely threatening scythe of sanctions, it can raise the stakes.
In the end, maybe that's all the NCAA can do. But for now, at least, it's something.