CHAMPAIGN, ILL. (AP) - With March Madness starting this week, plenty of college coaches are trying to keep their teams focused on the next game and the next opponent.
Some know the agents have already come calling. Or friends of the agents. Or just someone eager to share a phone number or a name.
Players, the NCAA and agents themselves say it’s difficult at best to limit the influence of agents on 18-, 19- and 20-year-old players.
“I don’t think it’s possible, and one of the reasons is, particularly in basketball, you’ve got a kid in school who wants to go to school only because the NBA regulations keep them from going in the draft early,” said Richard Katz, the CEO of Cincinnati-based KMG Sports Management who represents both pro players and college coaches.
“The problem,” said Rachel Newman Baker, the NCAA’s director of agent, gambling and amateurism activities, “is the kids are coming into the colleges with the relationships already, particularly in the sport of basketball.”
The NCAA is trying to deal with the situation about agents and their place in the college game.
High-profile NCAA investigations into the recruiting of former Auburn quarterback Cam Newton and the influence of sports agents on North Carolina football have made agents the subject of the moment. The issue has led some state legislatures, Illinois included, to pass laws aimed at regulating agents.
There’s nothing wrong, according to NCAA rules, with agents and players talking.
But to coaches, the talk of the money a player might earn after he leaves college is a major distraction, another voice alongside friends and family telling a player he’s ready for the big time.
And anything beyond talk _ a handshake agreement to represent the player, a handout of a few bucks, even lunch _ is an NCAA rules violation that can cost a team and a player.
Newman Baker said by the time top players get to college agents have approached them through the coaches who run offseason AAU teams or through family and friends.
Most coaches are loathe to talk about agent influence, but Illinois coach Bruce Weber is one of those who admits he can’t entirely keep them away from his players.
“You can’t be with the kids 24 hours a day,” Weber said in an interview with The Associated Press. “There’s just so many people in kids’ lives these days.”
In early February, with the Illini slumping, Weber even told a Chicago radio station that point guard Demetri McCamey was struggling because he was hearing from agents and their runners filling his head full of NBA thoughts.
McCamey says his AAU coach fields calls for him, and he acknowledges he has taken steps to keep fans, agents and anyone else he doesn’t know away.
“I changed my number and things like that because people got a hold of it,” he said. “I don’t talk to people usually, if they say hi in a restaurant or something like that. I’ll say hi _ that’s probably the most talking they’ll get out of me.”
Newman Baker said the NCAA tries to reach players through their schools, mainly with literature the governing body urges school compliance officials to go over with their players. Occasionally, NCAA staff will get in touch with a player’s parents, but with a small staff that happens rarely.
“I think what we’re trying to figure out with our elite kids are what are some better ways to get them useful information,” she said.
With NCAA enforcement limited to schools and players, agents are subject to penalty only from professional leagues _ something that should be changed, McCamey’s teammate Bill Cole said.
“If (agents are) not getting punished for it, they’re just going to keep doing what they’re doing,” he said.
The NCAA is talking about a national registry of agents, Newman Baker said.
“It would at least be a way to track and share information about agents in all sports,” she said.
Weber said sometimes the best a coach can hope for is to convince a player’s family that, no matter what they’ve heard from agents, it’s in their best interests to put off talk of a pro career.
It worked with Deron Williams, a member of Illinois’ 2005 NCAA final team and first-round draft pick who is now an NBA All-Star, Weber said.
After pressure from agents picked up during the 2005 run, “I just went to his mom and I said, ‘He doesn’t need this distraction,’” Weber said. “We found the family friend who became the one who took the calls and stuff.”
Katz said he understands the coaches’ point of view, and their frustration. But he contends players are no different from any other student on campus thinking about a career _ and a good agent can help.
“Is the engineering department at Illinois going to keep Proctor & Gamble from talking to a second-year engineering student?” he asked.