Friday, October 01, 2010

Why the case vs. UNC matters

By Dan Wetzel, Yahoo! Sports
Sep 30, 1:34 pm EDT

When it comes to agents recruiting college players, the stereotype says they employ a “runner” to get close to the kid. That runner is generally considered to be some shadowy figure hanging out in parking lots and behind campus trees ready to dole out hundred-dollar handshakes. They’re the predators that suck innocent kids in. Or, in the parlance of Alabama coach Nick Saban, they’re “pimps.”

Such people still exist, of course, but the player procurement game for agents entered an era of high-tech sophistication long ago.

More From Dan WetzelHarbaugh makes Stanford tough to beat Sep 29, 2010 Boise State's Petersen tunes out the noise Sep 27, 2010 It’s why NFL agent Gary Wichard and former North Carolina assistant coach John Blake are dealing with questions about financial transactions, wired money and phone calls between the two, as the North Carolina Secretary of State, the NCAA and the NFL Players Association all look into Wichard’s recruitment of Tar Heel star defensive tackle Marvin Austin.

The NCAA isn't the only governing body looking into whether Marvin Austin was improperly recruited by agent Gary Wichard.
(Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

What should come out of it is the realization that the way the public thinks this game is played is actually a quaint relic of the past.

Today the top picks in the NFL draft are either the highest or one of the highest-paid players in the league, at least until the next year when the new draft class emerges.

For an agent, a $78 million player contract (like the one given to 2010 top pick Sam Bradford) is worth, at the industry standard three percent, $2.34 million. And that’s before getting into more lucrative marketing and advertising deals (where agent fees can top 10 percent).

With that kind of money on the line, agents have found better routes to players than the so-called “street agent.” And players have mostly wised up and realized some guy doling out cash probably isn’t going to offer the best advice on agents. They may take the money, but inevitably sign elsewhere.

As such, anyone who has access to, and the trust of, a top prospect can now be recruited to become what amounts to a “runner.” Players are most likely to listen to a figure they’ve known and respected. They naively assume there’s no agenda.

So anyone can be enlisted: friends, parents, girlfriends, teachers, ministers, teammates and teammate’s parents. Different agents may be working different people who surround the same prospect. It’s a free-for-all.

It can even be opposing players. It’s the same way a college coach uses a charismatic star high school recruit to draw in other high school prospects. If an agent gets an early commitment from a potential first rounder, he can have him make calls and connections with other players from teams across the country. The first player may get a cut of everyone else’s contract, unbeknownst to the other players, of course.

“What they try to do is get their claws into someone of influence, create a relationship with that person, whether financial or being around all the time, to the point where that person begins to rely on the agent and they feel obligated to help the agent sign the player,” Jeff Wechsler, president of 24/7 Sports Management, where he represents mainly NBA players, said in general about the way the business works. It’s not appreciably different in the NBA than the NFL.

“It doesn’t matter who the person is, it just matters whether the player will listen to them,” Wechsler said.

The people with perhaps the most access and trust during a player’s final college season are his coaches, especially his position coach. For years certain agents have had close relationships – and won many clients from – certain college coaches. Many times the coach, who can serve as a player’s father figure, is offering innocent and honest advice.

Other times it goes beyond that.

While few get into college coaching to steer players to agents, there is so much easy money available, and for the most part all of the agents are reputable and capable (it’s not like you’re giving bad advice), the temptation is overwhelming. If you’re a position coach at a big-time school, you churn out first rounders on a near annual basis. For an agent, that’s an ideal runner – someone with recurring influence over star players, not a one-and-done deal.

So it’s neither rare nor a secret that college coaches work as runners.

“We’re concerned about agreements under the table between agents and even our college coaches,” Rachel Newman Baker, the NCAA’s director of agent, gambling and amateurism activity told Yahoo! Sports last year.

What’s rare is that one would actually get caught.

The NCAA investigation is high-stakes stuff for Butch Davis and his UNC program.
(Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Time and a slew of different investigative bodies will determine the extent of Blake and Wichard’s relationship and whether it involved the recruitment of Tar Heel players. Yahoo! Sports reported Wednesday the existence of at least six wire transfers from Wichard’s private bank to Blake, a credit card from Wichard’s Pro Tect Management in Blake’s name and a personal loan given to the long-time college coach. Blake previously worked for Wichard.

Wichard denied any impropriety between the two. Blake’s attorney denied Blake ever steered players to Pro Tect.

For North Carolina football, this is now high-stakes stuff. More than a dozen players have already been suspended this year due to an NCAA investigation into agent activity and academic concerns. Blake resigned earlier this season. Head coach Butch Davis remains, for now.

If Wichard and Blake had an improper arrangement then the case becomes one of the most significant in recent NCAA history.

The NCAA has long held dirty agents in contempt and worked to eradicate them. It’s been a mostly fruitless effort because star players are walking lottery tickets ready to be cashed. No NCAA rule will ever stop the wheels of capitalism. The case can put the NCAA’s entire idea of “amateurism” on trial, which may be a welcome byproduct of an otherwise unseemly event.

For the NCAA, it’s far less embarrassing if the runner is that stereotypical shadowy figure. Coaches and athletic department officials can feign knowledge, even if the facts say otherwise. College sports can blame outsiders for ruining their game. People such as Saban – who had a player caught in the periphery of this case – can grandstand and call them pimps.

If the runner is working 80-hour weeks in the football or basketball office, there’s no one to blame. That’s the potential groundbreaking nature of this case – a widespread practice potentially finally coming to light. Blake isn’t some fringe character. He’s the former head coach of the University of Oklahoma and has been an assistant at five different programs dating back to the late 1980s.

The North Carolina investigation isn’t even close to being completed, let alone ruled on, so predicting an outcome should come with an innocent-until-proven-guilty caveat. That said, this isn’t a typical NCAA case since the government is involved and it can compel people in the case to speak (a power the NCAA lacks). Blake’s attorney said he is cooperating fully. The truth is likely to come out here.

If UNC is guilty, the NCAA should be highly motivated to make an example of the Tar Heels’ program. It hits too close to home for anything but a significant response. The NCAA simply can’t tolerate coaches as runners. They need to use this case to at least attempt to scare people straight.

Does that mean the so-called “Death Penalty?” No. Only one program, SMU football, has ever received that penalty. While its technically always on the table for the NCAA infractions committee, UNC is not a repeat offender, is said to be cooperating fully and may be able to place all blame on a single coach.

Significant sanctions, likely even harsher than applied to Southern California this year (30 lost scholarships, two-year bowl ban), would be called for though. UNC lacks the tradition and recruiting base of USC, which makes recovering from penalties difficult. So this could feel like a death penalty for the Tar Heels.

There just aren’t many reasonable defenses a school can make if the runner turns out to be on the university payroll, working out of the university offices, hand in hand with all the other coaches and athletic personnel.

That’s what makes the North Carolina case such a big deal. It has the chance to blow the lid off how agents recruit these budding millionaires and show that college sports isn’t as corrupt the public thinks it is.

It’s worse.

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the new book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series."

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