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Starkey: Agent issue blows up

| Thursday, July 22, 2010

You might be surprised to know how easy it is for agents to meet with college football players, without breaking rules, and solicit their future business.

Once the player is three seasons out of high school, he is fair game. An agent -- or an agent's representative -- can contact the player and arrange a get-together.

See you at the student union at 3.

Coaches might forbid such meetings, but which would be willing to suspend a star player over one?

Agent-athlete encounters take many forms. One unsavory example, as NFL player agent Ron Del Duca explained to me Wednesday, would be an agent's rep, or "runner," hanging out with a player at bars, developing a friendship on the hope his boss would sign the player once he turns pro.

"As long as you disclose that you paid a fee to somebody who's a runner, it's OK to have runners," said Del Duca, a South Hills resident who teaches a sports law course at Duquesne University.

Del Duca said he doesn't go to such great lengths in pursuing players because he deals with under-the-radar types. For the most part, so does Joe Linta, the agent for Steelers tackle Willie Colon. Linta meets with 60 to 80 prospective clients each spring.

"Pretty much across the board, you can meet and chat with (college) players," Linta told me in a radio interview this week. "You just can't give them anything of value."

Therein lies the trouble.

What, exactly, constitutes something of value• Does the promise of a future endorsement count?

"You have all kinds of things happening -- straight-out cash payments,marketing guarantees, co-signing a car loan and the biggest one, training," Del Duca said. "I had a kid who wanted me to pay for him to go to Arizona to train (before the draft). That's 15 grand. Somebody else paid it, and it's wrong. You can't give a player something of value to induce him to sign."

The player-agent issue has exploded in the wake of the Reggie Bush scandal at USC and subsequent stories involving other schools. One story alleged that Florida linemen Maurkice Pouncey, since drafted by the Steelers, accepted a $100,000 payment from an agent rep before the Sugar Bowl. Pouncey has denied the allegation. Other stories have implicated players from North Carolina, South Carolina and Alabama.

Linta believes "less than 2 percent" of players and agents break the rules. That sounds low, but whatever the percentage, the key question stands:

What can be done?

Here's a start: Players can say no. We're talking about adults here. And whether it's the advances of gamblers, drug dealers or rogue agents, these men have the ability to turn people down. They know the rules.

As Linta put it, "They are told from day one, you don't take anything."

On the other hand, when you don't have anything -- when your family back home is subsisting on food stamps -- you're more likely to listen to offers.

Easy answers are hard to find here.

I have to laugh, by the way, when I hear coaches such as Alabama's Nick Saban ripping agents. Coaches have agents, too, you know, and Del Duca tells me it is not uncommon for coaches to steer business to said agents. I'd also bet the agent-player game is squeaky clean compared to what you'd see on the recruiting trail.

That said, corrupt agents should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, up to and including jail time. Thirty-eight states have laws regulating agent activity. Federal legislation would be even better, but don't hold your breath.

Another solid idea is schools hosting agent forums -- job fairs, basically. Some already do. Agents show up and make their best pitches. Del Duca likes the idea, because it means agents have to show their faces and be registered in a given state.

The NCAA's increasing vigilance in tracking potential violations is a positive. The NFL Players' Association must make it harder to become certified as an agent and sack the rules-breakers. Decertify some people.

Linta believes players should face civil penalties and assume some financial responsibility when a school loses massive revenue, as USC surely will in being banned from bowl games. Sounds good to me.

In the meantime, college football players and agents will continue to meet regularly. Any time and anywhere they like.

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