It's heartening to hear that the antitrust division of the Justice Department is looking into NCAA rules that allow colleges to jerk student-athletes around by reviewing their scholarships from year to year. While the Feds are at it, they should look into the organization's policies on the use of agents and advisors for the Major League baseball draft. The current system effectively denies college ballplayers the right to counsel. It's patently illegal.
Considering that the 2010 draft kicks off June 7, a federal investigation would be especially timely. Some 1,500 players will be selected -- half of them high school players; half, college.
Two months ago the NCAA sent student-athletes a memorandum that included guidelines for using advisors. Among the lowlights:
You are permitted to have an advisor provided that he or she doesn't represent you directly in negotiating the contract. The advisor can't "market you to or have direct communications" with big-league clubs on your behalf.
You may not "allow the advisor to talk to clubs" about you.
Basically, the NCAA wants to keep agents and advisors from having an impact on negotiations. To justify its stance, the outfit tells athletes that they don't need an advisor to be recognized or drafted by a big league team. The NCAA also notes that first-year pro baseball contracts have only three negotiable terms: incentives, the signing bonus, and scholarship money. Those looking to determine their true worth are counseled to surf the web to contrast the offers they receive with the deals players got in previous drafts.
As a longtime player agent, I can say categorically that these rules leave student-athletes at a terrible disadvantage in the draft. For instance, this week many top picks have been asked to work out for clubs. Some have received multiple requests. Many are unsure whether to attend these workouts and which are worth attending. Instead of soliciting expert advice, the students must fend for themselves.
At the same time, ball clubs will try to divine the signing bonus that a potential pick is seeking. This bonus is a lifeline for developing prospects. It's usually the only real money they'll see until they reach the majors, assuming they ever do, Most first-year players survive on the bush-league rookie minimum - about $1,000 a month.
"Signability" is often the critical factor in a team's decision to pick a player. Releasing a bonus figure can have rather weighty consequences for a student and his family. Sometimes, caving to pressure and going public works against them. In such situations, a skilled advisor could alleviate pressure by running interference.
Unfortunately, the NCAA will not allow this.
Why are student-athletes denied meaningful representation? Signing a contract is a life altering decision. Should a kid turn pro or would he enhance his future draft status by staying in school? Googling won't help draft picks get a fix on their real market value. It can't, if only because signing information is only available for ballplayers chosen in the first few rounds.
In my experience, many families lament that they are ill-equipped to represent their sons during contract talks. Wary of appearing adversarial, they tend to knuckle under to the teams' wishes. On the other hand, agent-advisors often have the negotiating skills to match a club's.
What makes the NCAA's rules particularly unfair is the way in which they impact lower income and non-English speaking families. I know of no Hispanic student athlete who has received the NCAA memo. Nor am I aware of any Spanish translation.
Contrary to what the NCAA is telling potential draftees, there's much more to player contracts than those three negotiable terms. Legal language designed to protect players can be just as important as the financial numbers. And what about elite players? Some are in a position to get actual Major League contracts, not just signing bonuses.
It's axiomatic that an informed advisor will secure better contract terms for a player than that the player himself. One of my very first baseball clients, outfielder Jeff Stone, went unpicked in the 1979 draft. He was an 18-year-old free agent with no player agent when a Philadelphia Phillies scout offered him a contract. Jeff said he'd sign on ANY dotted line as long as could meet Pete Rose. So, the next time the Phils were in St. Louis, the team flew him in from his hometown of Kennett, Missouri. He met Charlie Hustle and agreed to a laughable $1,000 bonus. So much for the munificence of big league teams.
(Stone would go on to play eight seasons in the majors. The year he signed with the Phillies, another 18-year-old, Todd Demeter, got a then-record $208,000 bonus from the New York Yankees. The son of onetime big league outfielder Don Demeter, Todd had been "advised" to leverage the Yanks by threatening to go to college. The ploy was far more fruitful than his baseball career. Over seven minor league seasons, he never rose higher than AA ball).
It took pro athletes more than a half-century of legal battles to win the right to be represented. Student-athletes deserve that right, too.