Out of Bounds
States and colleges are increasingly turning to the courts to help protect the integrity of big-time college athletics.
Reggie Bush, the former University of Southern California running back and now a star for the NFL’s New Orleans Saints, recently reached a settlement with California real estate agent and sports agent Michael Michaels, who reportedly let Bush’s family live rent-free in a $750,000 house during Bush’s college tenure. Michaels had hoped that he would represent Bush in the NFL, but when Bush signed with Mike Ornstein and Joel Segal instead, Michaels went public with the housing arrangement, drawing scrutiny to the player and the Trojans’ national championship team. The NCAA continues to investigate, and Bush’s Heisman trophy may be more than just a little tarnished; it may have to be flat out returned. Tim Henning, the Heisman coordinator, told Diverse: “The Heisman Trophy Trust is aware of the situation, but does not feel it’s appropriate to make a decision or pass judgment until the NCAA and the Pac-10 have released their findings.” Bush, for his part, has mostly refused to participate in the investigation.
While not as high profile as the Bush case, other instances of improper contact between agents and players have occurred at USC. In 1995, Robert Troy Caron, head of the sports agency Pro Manage, agreed to pay the university $50,000 to settle a lawsuit that claimed he provided three players, Shawn Walters, Israel Ifeanyi and Errick Herrin, with plane tickets, rent and other items in hopes of representing the players at the next level. After the violations surfaced, the three players, all starters, were dismissed from the team.
Agent infractions have hit universities big and small. In 2003, for example, the NCAA levied a four-year probation on Fresno State University for violations that included illicit connections between an agent and a member of the men’s basketball team during the summer of 2001.
Amy P. Perko, the executive director of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, says that while the number of booster-related violations is on the decline, agent-related infringement is increasing.
And since the agents are “not connected with the institution,” it’s harder to control their actions, says Bill Clever, the assistant athletic director for compliance at the University of Oregon. “Agents are a true nightmare.”
Universities such as Oregon now hold “agent days” to educate players about appropriate conduct. States are also beginning to pass laws making it illegal for agents to interact with college athletes in inappropriate ways. The statutes target the agents and the students. Clever says Oregon’s state law allows the school to file a civil suit against a student-athlete should his or her illegal contact with an agent result in a loss of revenue for the institution. Overall, these measures have been “pretty successful” tools, Clever says, but both he and Perko agree more needs to be done.
The Oregon law is based on the Uniform Athlete Agents Act that has been passed in 35 states. In 1997, the NCAA encouraged the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws — an organization comprised of 300 state-appointed lawyers, judges, state legislators and law professors — to develop model legislation regarding sports agents that states could pattern their own laws after. The UAAA was the result of those deliberations. Essentially, it allows a state to fine an agent $25,000 per violation, and institutions can seek financial restitution against a student-athlete for any loss of revenue caused by violations. California, Colorado, Iowa, Michigan and Ohio have passed legislation designed to regulate agent contact that does not fall under the UAAA guidelines. Illinois, Massachusetts, Virginia and seven other states have no laws governing agent misbehavior.
But despite education and legislation, some boosters and agents continue to prey upon rising sports stars.
P.J. Clark, a former walk-on wide receiver and kick returner for the University of Minnesota’s football team, says boosters and agents “are great at being invisible. I don’t think anyone is stupid enough to give a handout after the game, but it’s all about contact information. They’ll pass you a card and say, ‘give me a call if you need a job.’”
Separate But Equal?
Most student-athletes, coaches and administrators agree that egregious improprieties like those being alleged against Bush are relatively rare.
“I’ve been here for 18 years, and I’ve seen the houses and the apartments where the students live,” says John Chadima, an associate athletic director at the University of Wisconsin. “[The housing situation of] athletes and non-athletes are all the same.”
Anna Fiser, a senior goalie for the Auburn University women’s soccer team, agrees with Chadima. “If [the athletes] aren’t living illegally, they shouldn’t have these lavish lifestyles,” she says.
“I’ve never seen any evidence of this directly, but there are rumors that fly around.”
NCAA rules mandate that all scholarship athletes receive financial assistance for room, board and books, regardless of how much revenue a program generates.
Gail Dent, the NCAA’s associate director for public relations, says that according to the organization’s bylaws, “it isn’t the visibility of the sport that dictates the financial status [of students on scholarship].”
A student-athlete on a basketball scholarship receives, or should receive, the same benefits as a scholarship softball player.
But while athletes in the big-money sports may not all be cruising around campus in luxury SUVs, there is generally a noticeable difference in the lifestyles of athletes and non-athletes, especially at the Division I level.
“Our student-athletes with full scholarships are better off, their education is paid for, room and board are paid for. In my mind, they do very well with what they receive,” says Bill Morgan, the associate athletic director for compliance at the University of Arizona.
Yet even full scholarships don’t necessarily cover everything.
The Collegiate Athletes Coalition, an advocacy group begun in 2001 by former UCLA football player Ramogi D. Huma, reports that a full scholarship falls short by an average of $3,000 in meeting the financial needs of student-athletes. Huma began the CAC after the NCAA suspended UCLA’s All-America linebacker Donnie Edwards for accepting groceries at the end of a month when his stipend ran out.
For years, the NCAA refused to allow students to work, fearing that boosters would give athletes easy jobs with high pay. In 1997, the organization altered the rules to allow student-athletes to hold jobs as long as they clear the position with their school’s compliance officer. The rule requires that “the student-athlete [be] compensated at a rate commensurate with that going rate in that locality for similar services.” Morgan praises the change, saying it “treats [student-athletes] like every other student instead of singling them out.”
But that isn’t always the case. Just before the start of the 2006 college football season, University of Oklahoma starting quarterback Rhett Bomar was kicked off the team after it was discovered that he’d received approximately $7,000 from his job at a local car dealership for hours he didn’t work. Sooners teammate J.D. Quinn, who also worked at the dealership, was also dismissed from the team for similar reasons. The dealership, Big Red Sports/Imports, had been managed by Brad McRae, a Sooners booster. Bomar told ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” that “Football is basically a full-time job. Things like [not reporting to work] are easy.” Bomar and Quinn transferred to Division I-AA Sam Houston State University and had to sit out a year. They are both slated to start this fall.
Many student-athletes and administrators agree it’s almost impossible to attend class, participate in a sport and work a job during the season. To pay for expenses not covered by her partial scholarship, Fiser worked during the summer and received financial assistance from her parents. Clark participated in Minnesota’s work-study program. Student-athletes could also apply for financial aid, such as the Pell Grant, or tap into the Special Assistance Fund, a portion of which is set aside by the NCAA specifically for athletes.
The SAF exists in part because of the Knight Commission’s recommendations.
“The commission advocated for a set of principles to help cover the cost of attendance for the very needy,” Perko says. When the NCAA signed a new contract with CBS, the document included a clause that routed a portion of the revenue towards the creation of the SAF.
While organizations like the Knight Commission are working to level the playing field, some say there is a danger in doing too much.
“The NCAA has done a lot of things to make the situation better,” Morgan says. “We should stop and see what’s going on, where we are, and take a step back before we do anything knee jerk.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com