For the past year, the NCAA has discussed how to get a better handle on agent-athlete interactions across different sports. Football and men’s basketball receive the most public attention, but no sport needs guidance more than baseball.
Unlike football and basketball, baseball selects high schoolers in a 50-round draft that begs for players to have representation. Professional clubs toss around dollar figures to measure a player’s “signability,” which determines if he is worth drafting or a risk to head to college.
The NCAA allows “advisers” in baseball, but these people are not permitted to communicate on the player’s behalf with pro teams. The result: The NCAA’s “no-agent” rule flies in the face of what actually occurs in baseball.
Wichita State freshman pitcher Albert Minnis, a 33rd-round pick by the Atlanta Braves, was suspended half of this season for violating the rule. The NCAA ruled his adviser initiated two phone calls and four text messages with a Braves scout before the draft.
Nebraska freshman pitcher Logan Ehlers was suspended for 60 percent of the regular season because his adviser had contact with the Toronto Blue Jays. Ehlers was an eighth-round pick and turned down $800,000 from the club.
“The handful of suspensions you see may just be the tip of the iceberg,” said Dave Keilitz, executive director of the American Baseball Coaches Association. “I think there’s a lot more out there than what’s been discovered.”
When players arrive at college, the NCAA requires them to complete a questionnaire in order to be certified eligible. One question directly asks if their advisers had any contact with pro teams on their behalf.
“Right now, you’re forcing kids to lie,” said Big 12 deputy commissioner Tim Weiser, chairman of the Division I Baseball Committee. “I can’t for the life of me understand why we would support anything that would have that kind of outcome.”
SEC Commissioner Mike Slive has been involved in discussions about agents only as they relate to football. But he said baseball clearly deserves a lot of discussion because its players are forced to make pro decisions at such a young age.
“This goes back to what I said last July. I think the NCAA current legislation is part of the problem, not part of the solution,” Slive said. “That’s as much about baseball as anything.”
Finding a solution that keeps baseball within the NCAA’s stated amateurism model isn’t easy. Slive and Keilitz both support allowing players to have agents provided they aren’t given extra benefits before signing a pro contract.
“Here’s the fly in the ointment: Is the NCAA going to be sport-specific and let baseball do this and not let basketball or football do it?” Keilitz said. “Football and basketball are not in favor of the players having agents. That’s the big sticking point in this.”
‘They need advice’
That the NCAA is even having this conversation represents a change. Just two years ago, a lawsuit revealed the vulnerability in the NCAA’s no-agent rule, causing the NCAA to crack down even more.
Andrew Oliver.jpgFormer Oklahoma State pitcher Andrew Oliver received a $750,000 settlement from the NCAA after his lawsuit over use of advisers.
Andrew Oliver, then a pitcher at Oklahoma State, sued the NCAA after he was ruled ineligible for using advisers to negotiate with the Minnesota Twins out of high school. A judge in Ohio ordered the NCAA to reinstate Oliver and struck down the NCAA’s rule on advisers, saying the rule was impossible to enforce and allows for the player to be exploited.
In the wake of that order, the NCAA sent a memo in May 2009 to high school players warning them about “needlessly” jeopardizing their eligibility with an adviser and that college players don’t need one to be drafted. The memo added that “very few advisers actually stay on the permissible side of NCAA agent legislation.”
Five months later, Oliver received a $750,000 settlement from the NCAA to end the lawsuit. The settlement vacated the federal judge’s ruling and allowed the NCAA to keep its rule prohibiting advisers from participating in contract talks.
There are days when Weiser leaves these discussions about agents feeling good on the best course of action.
“Then I hear about the whole certification of agents and how it can work out positively and negatively, and I say I’m not sure the right solution on this thing,” he said. “I think that’s why it’s taken so long to come up with an answer that makes sense and can be enforced. We often do things that are tough to enforce.”
Alabama coach Mitch Gaspard said he would support high draft picks using agents to negotiate with pro clubs.
“Where the disconnect to me is in the summer when these advisers start tapping on these young kids who are 14, 15 years old,” he said. “I think you have a lot of parents that want involvement at a young age with agents and are letting them in. I think there’s some middle ground that needs to be met.”
Kevin O’Sullivan.jpgFlorida coach Kevin O’Sullivan: “There’s a lot of money thrown at these kids.”
Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said the influx of advisers is simply the reality of a sport with tough decisions for players.
“I think if you’d ask any person if your kid was offered X amount of dollars and you might turn that down to go to school, there’s a lot of factors that go into making a decision like that,” O’Sullivan said.
While the player sorts out his options, college coaches are often unable to control every situation with his recruit.
“Professional teams want to know what a kid will sign for,” O’Sullivan said. “You can’t control what a professional team does. There’s nothing stopping them from calling this guy or that guy. It’s a hard thing. It’s an amateur game, but there’s a lot of money thrown at these kids.”
Said Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn: “If you gave me the option to have an agent or not have an agent, I’d say have an agent. Because they need advice. They need help. Then maybe coaches would be able to work with that agent group and find out what’s really going on. How much money does the player really want?”
The NCAA Baseball Issues Committee will discuss agents again in July. Keilitz suggested one compromise could be the NCAA giving players a grace period for agents to negotiate on their behalf.
Then again, he said, “almost anything is better than what’s going on right now.”