Fifteen months ago, Alabama coach Nick Saban called for a crackdown on agents, saying some were no better than pimps. It seemed like a curious choice of words at the time, since the same could be said about some college coaches, who play just as fast and loose recruiting those kids in the first place. But the comparison was spot on in one regard: Like pimps, rogue agents rarely have to worry about getting caught.
Two weeks after Saban kicked off his crusade, an Associated Press survey found that despite laws on the books in 42 states governing agents' dealings with college athletes, they were almost never enforced. Twenty-four states reported taking no disciplinary or criminal action against agents; most didn't even know whether state or local prosecutors had ever pursued such cases. Around the same time, North Carolina's secretary of state decided to take the opposite tack.
With the NCAA investigating whether agents had funneled improper benefits to UNC defensive tackle Marvin Austin and receiver Greg Little _ the probe would eventually expand to include former UNC associate head coach John Blake and others _ Secretary of State Elaine Marshall set in motion an investigation of her own to determine if the state's sports agent laws were broken. Considering how little cooperation her office has received from the NCAA thus far, it seems fair to ask whose side the organization is on.
Making a case against rogue agents has never been easy. But a decade or so ago, the NCAA tried to make it easier by lobbying state lawmakers to agree on a set of standardized rules. The result was the Uniform Athletes Agent Act, adopted by 39 states, including North Carolina, and similar to those in California, Michigan and Ohio, which retained their own laws to deal with agent oversight. The UAAA gives schools the right to sue agents who violate the law, though there's no chance of an award large enough to undo the damage, which in UNC's case has already been considerable.
Fourteen players missed at least one game and seven players were forced to sit out the entire 2010 season _ including Austin and two others taken in the first two rounds in this summer's NFL draft. A Tar Heels team considered a good shot for a BCS bowl wound up 8-5 and in the Music City Bowl instead. Head coach Butch Davis was fired in July, even though he was never tied directly to or cited for any violation and the school still owes him nearly $3 million. In a bid for leniency ahead of next week's meeting with the NCAA's infractions committee, UNC penalized itself last month _ vacating all 16 wins from the 2008-09 seasons, cutting nine scholarships over the next three years and agreeing to pay a $50,000 fine.
Considering how much wrongdoing is alleged, gathering evidence wouldn't seem hard. But because the law provided no funding, the secretary of state's office has had to deploy staffers who usually investigate securities fraud to build a case. Getting the NCAA to help has proven an even more daunting task. After some early cooperation, Marshall's office went to state court last week to force the NCAA to turn over documents from its investigation.
`This came as a surprise to us," NCAA spokeswoman Stacey Osburn said in an emailed statement. "We were under the misimpression that we had a cooperative relationship with the office."
There's been too much legal and jurisdictional wrangling to recount here. Suffice it to say that the NCAA provided some documents when North Carolina made its requests through the secretary of state's office in Indiana, where the organization is headquartered, but even those had the confidential information redacted. The NCAA said that was because of the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act _ known as FERPA _ then added, "We are not sure of the Secretary of State's motives or agenda, but we plan to fight this action aggressively in court."
The NCAA's response is more pragmatic than principled at this point. It's no doubt worried that if it cooperates fully with North Carolina's request for documents from its investigation, it will have to do the same with any other state law-enforcement agency doing the same. Yet that's exactly what the NCAA proposed when it sought out cooperation from the states, the NFL and its players association to deal with an "age-old problem that not just one group or organization can solve on its own."
Where the secretary of state's effort goes from here is anyone's guess. A hearing on its request for an unredacted copy of the NCAA notice of allegations outlining nine violations as well as records of interviews conducted by NCAA staff is set for Nov. 28. The office is running on a limited budget, although some of its subpoenas, especially those involving Blake's financial ties to the late NFL agent Gary Wichard, suggest it might be onto something. Though no one in the office will say as much, they were no doubt hoping that several other states whose flagship schools got caught breaking rules because of improper contact with agents would take up the cause. None have thus far.
Few organizations like to conduct their business in public, which hardly makes the NCAA an exception. But policing the schools, or at the very least helping the schools to police themselves, is the reason the NCAA exists in the first place. And if it can't be counted on to provide cooperation in an instance like this, it has to make you wonder what else the organization might be hiding.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org. Follow him at htttp://Twitter.com/JimLitke.