- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 1, 2001

Terence Morris and Juan Dixon, Maryland basketball stars and likely future NBA players, are part of a College Park legacy shared by Steve Francis, Joe Smith, Walt Williams and nearly a dozen others.

Both were approached almost immediately upon their arrival on campus by financial advisers, stockbrokers, annuity and insurance salesmen and myriad others seeking to handle and invest their fortunes once they turn pro.

"Every player I've ever had that was good enough [to go pro] has had their phone ringing off the hook from these guys," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "It's not too surprising, unfortunately. Anytime a player has the potential to make a lot of money, those people will be around."

On college campuses with big-time sports across the country, financial advisers are taking an increasing interest in players with pro potential and recruiting them earlier and far more aggressively.

Fueling that interest are early departures for pro football and basketball that have more than tripled in the past decade and average NBA and NFL salaries that have more than doubled in the same period.

But unlike the Byzantine and strict NCAA rules that limit college player contact with agents, financial services representatives can and do approach players as early as their freshman years. The only restriction is that their sales pitches can be no different than those to any other prospective client. That mile-wide loophole, college athletics officials say, is being exploited and causing plenty of internal hand-wringing.

"There is concern here about the intrusiveness and frequency of these [sales] pitches," NCAA spokesman Wally Renfro said. "It's just one more set of people who are trying to attach themselves to elite athletes."

Renfro acknowledges there is little his organization can do about it.

"Players can purchase the services of a financial planner or any other professional on their own accord. We can't stop that," Renfro said. "The line is crossed, and our rules come into play when a player receives an extra benefit because of their status as a student-athlete.

"If a player receives a dinner from a financial planner and we can find that planner takes every single other prospective client to dinner, there's nothing wrong there. But there's nobody out there giving cars or advancing money to every single prospective client, and, obviously, things like that are major red flags," Renfro said.

The NFL Players Association adopted a plan last year to register all financial advisers seeking to represent players. The move came after South Carolina agent William "Tank" Blank, also acting as a financial planner, defrauded more than $15 million from his pro basketball and football clients in a pyramid-type scheme. The other pro leagues are expected to replicate the effort soon.

But the NFLPA registry, which includes a detailed background check and additional training, does nothing to protect amateur athletes besieged with offers and marketing pitches while they're still in school.

In North Carolina, home to four ACC schools, a grassroots effort is seeking to hold financial services companies to a tougher standard when they approach college students. The state is one of 28 that requires agents to register with the secretary of state and notify athletic directors before contacting players.

Without similar rules for the financial services industry, agents there say they operate with a distinct competitive disadvantage. College athletes cannot sign with an agent unless they are willing to surrender all remaining eligibility, if any, and stringent limits govern the level of player-agent contact before a signing.

"Those guys can go in as soon as they want and wine and dine as much as they want. The playing field is certainly not even," said William "Woody" Webb Jr., a Raleigh, N.C.-based attorney and agent. "What also hurts is that a lot of these guys either are affiliated or have informal connections with an agent. So when a guy finally can sign, the agent has already in a sense made his pitch."

For decades, pro athletes have employed financial services firms to help manage their money. But the relationship has deepened in recent years because of a fast-growing stock market and salary cap limitations in both the NBA and NFL. Despite the mammoth growth in average salaries, NBA players drafted in the first round do not make more than about $3.6 million a year until their fourth year in the league.

"For a lot of guys, investing their money is the only way left to really build their income further," said Len Elmore, a former Maryland basketball All-American and sports agent. "Their salary is already set with the rookie scales, and very few of them have the persona to command endorsement dollars. That's naturally created more demand and more interest in investing."

Now an attorney and businessman, Elmore helps Williams counsel Maryland players on the basics of the financial world.

Knowing that interest, many financial advisers have engaged in full-throttle recruiting efforts that would put any big-time college football coach to shame. Fueling their desire even more are commission rates than can soar as high as 20 percent. Commissions for agents negotiating contracts usually top out at 4 percent.

"Many of these guys get in there and fill the heads of their families, their significant others, whoever, with all this talk about the money that's going to come in," Elmore said. "Most of these families are not very sophisticated in the ways of Wall Street and are usually very hard-working, very trusting and loyal people. Parents like Janet and Calvin Hill [of Grant Hill], who have seen all of this before, are few and far between."

That's left coaches like Gary Williams with the job of filling in the blanks. Maryland, North Carolina and dozens of other prominent universities hold regular seminars for athletes on financial basics.

"We do a lot of talking one-on-one about this we have to," Williams said. "There's a lot we want them to know, and that's where we bring in people like Len [Elmore] who have experience at all sides of the table. Our basic message is that despite what they say or promise, none of the money guys are really giving anything out for free."

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