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On March 27, the National Football League Players’ Association (NFLPA) voted to get rid of a rule prohibiting certified player-agents from contacting football players at NCAA institutions until 3 years after the graduation of their high school class. Basically, this rule normally prohibited agents registered with the NFLPA – necessary to represent NFL players – from contacting NCAA football players during their first two years on campus.
The NFLPA passed this rule in the wake of the 2007 Reggie Bush scandal, which saw the Heisman Trophy returned for the first and only time in its history, and the University of Southern California decimated by NCAA penalties. Bush’s family accepted numerous benefits from would-be agents, marketers, and financial planners. The NFLPA took a page out of the NCAA’s playbook and decided to throw the baby out with the bathwater, banning agents from contacting prospects until they were Juniors (or redshirt Sophomores), and thereby capable of entering the NFL draft. The problem is that the Junior Rule didn’t work. In fact, the Junior Rule was counterproductive.
As I have discussed before, when there is a lot of (potential) money involved, many “agents” will do pretty much anything to sign an athlete. The key is making sure that these transactions are transparent, rather than brokered in dark rooms. The Junior Rule was a “dark room” rule, encouraging agents to use middlemen and “runners” as go-betweens, enabling agents to comply by the letter of the rule, maintain plausible deniability, and make inroads with athletes. From the standpoint of the NCAA, however, these new interactions were no more permissible than the old ones, just more difficult to detect. From the standpoint of ethical agents, who sought to comply with the NFLPA’s rule, unethical agents had a complete competitive advantage. For the NFLPA, a group of former college athletes whose ranks were becoming more and more sullied with an influx of players who had been suspended for “impermissible benefits,” the rule was not working as promised.
Then, the NFLPA did something entirely reasonable by abandoning the Junior Rule – purportedly at the behest of NCAA coaches – instead banning the use of runners and middlemen. The NFLPA decided to encourage transparency, daylight, and education of student-athletes regarding agents. The new NFLPA agent conduct standard no longer punishes ethical agents, good agents, or new agents. The new NFLPA agent conduct rule places responsibility to educating and guiding student-athletes through the agent process entirely on the shoulders of NCAA coaches and NCAA member institutions.
Unsurprisingly, the NCAA has yet to respond. Until the NCAA abandons its hypocritical “Agents and money are bad, but we will keep raking in millions of dollars a year off of your name and likeness” attitude, dark room dealings will continue to take place. At this point, we can call NCAA rules violators conscientious objectors.
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