In the fall of 1998, I was working as a sports anchor and reporter for a television station in Chicago. I got a call from a friend of mine who had just landed a job as a runner for a fledgling sports agency. He had an angle on a potential top draft choice that year and needed a favor.
"Can you call Tim Couch for me?" asked my friend.
He wanted me to use my position as a journalist to make inroads with the Kentucky football star (and number one pick of the 1999 draft). I refused. Then he beefed up the offer.
"We'll pay you $500. But only if he signs with us," said my friend.
I declined again as the whole idea was just creepy. Sure, I could have used the extra cash, but at what price? I never spoke with my friend again.
It was my lone exposure to the shady side of the agency business. Fast forward to 2010 and this is a hot topic in national circles. A scandal involving agents at a high profile university has shined a light on what has been mostly an underground issue. A recent Sports Illustrated confessional from retired agent John Luchs was the genie-out-of-the-bottle equivalent to Ken Caminiti's spill the guts about steroids use in baseball. Whether Luchs' revelations will lead to the cataclysmic changes Caminiti's did for baseball remains to be seen.
If I were in charge -- for the record, no one has reached out -- here are 3 moves I would make to clean up the problem:
1. Punish the agents. Agents get paid commissions on the signing of professional contracts, so this would have to come from the leagues where we see most of the bad behavior: basketball and football. If it is found an agent or someone working for an agent has given money to a college or high school athlete before their eligibility is up, ban them from negotiating contracts for a year. For repeat offenders, ban them for life. This will hit them in their wallet, which will have the most impact.
2. Punish the athletes. I am tired of hearing the word "kid" used to describe the Reggie Bushes of the world, as if he was just fitted for a retainer. The coddling of star athletes is an epidemic in this country, with parents refusing to demand discipline and accountability from their children. But they are just "kids", right? Baloney. Opie Taylor was a kid. OJ Mayo was not. If they are taking money or gifts from agents, ban them from being on scholarship for a year. If they do it again, just like the agents instigated the behavior, ban them for life. This is where I would reluctantly bring in the NCAA as enforcer.
3. Punish the coaches. Notice how I put this third, after the agents and athletes. One of the most unfair punitive practices of the NCAA is to bring sanctions against a university, taking away scholarships and bowl games, well after the offenders have been fired or skipped town. How is this justifiable? It's more a function of the analog time frame of these investigations, which take years to complete. And when wrongdoing is found, the NCAA has to implement some type of discipline. I agree. But why punish the student-athletes or coaching staff that had nothing to do with the violations? Instead, you go after the coaches who enabled the behavior. One, if a paper trail determines the head coach lacked "institutional control," leading to an agent paying a player, ban them from coaching at another NCAA school for a year. You can't deny someone from making a living in his or her industry, so if they jump to the NFL, fine. But you can deny them a job with your company. For repeat offenders, ban them for life. Not three strikes, but two. Fool me twice, shame on you.
The ironic thing about this issue is there is no simple plan. These ideas are by no means innovative. I admit they are probably too pragmatic. But they are punch-in-the-gut ferocious, which is what this issue needs.