And while the cheers are still ringing for the defensive back who blocked a game-winning field goal, that guy at the end of the bar may be doing long division in his head — the value of a 1.5 percent wrap fee on a $10 million investment portfolio, for example.
The reason? While NCAA rules largely prohibit athletes from dipping their hands directly into the raging river of cash that runs through college sports, a handful of the very best running backs, shooting guards and defensive ends are carrying around golden tickets in the form of future professional contracts that could run in the tens of millions.
The man with a golden ticket, of course, often doesn’t lack for company, and while the games are played in public, there’s also a competition going on behind the scenes. From the shady and sleazy to the upstanding and honorable, agents, financial advisers and other professionals use big-time college sports as the backdrop for a race to build bridges to the some of the country’s elite athletes.
Even a casual football fan has seen the impact of that scramble in the run-up to the current season. This summer, universities across the South found themselves embroiled in controversies regarding playeragent relationships, and one coach — Nick Saban, of national champion University of Alabama — angrily compared some agents to pimps.
The University of Tennessee has avoided
the spotlight of the recent agent scandals, but you can be sure that UT athletes also get attention from guys who make it a point to be around. Will Overstreet, a former defensive end for Tennessee’s football team who later played with the Atlanta Falcons, said in an interview that “if you’re looking for it, they fi nd you.”
“If you’re in the market, shopping yourself, you know, and letting people know, then you’re going to get phone calls,” he said. “If you’re sitting back and they think you’re one of the guys that might be offended or … won’t be receptive to that, because … you don’t want to be in trouble, then they’re not going to come after you.”
While the wooing of college athletes may play out behind the scenes, the public occasionally gets a glimpse of the process. In Knoxville, a good example came last December, when former Vol football star Albert Haynesworth filed a lawsuit in Knox County Chancery Court against financial adviser John Verble and investment brokerage Morgan Stanley Smith Barney.
The lawsuit focused on Verble’s actions as an adviser for Haynesworth — who now is a defensive lineman with the Washington Redskins — but perhaps the most interesting aspect of the suit was its description of the personal history between the two men.
The suit alleged that Haynesworth was introduced to Verble during his freshman year at UT, that one of his football coaches made the introduction and that Verble cultivated a close personal relationship with Haynesworth from the player’s early days as a college athlete. Haynesworth played for Tennessee from 1999 to 2001.
More specifically, the suit alleged that Verble “cultivated and publicized his close relationship with Mr. Haynesworth not only to secure Mr. Haynesworth’s business, but to use the relationship as a marketing tool for himself to increase his visibility and notoriety as a financial adviser to athletes and celebrity figures with a high net worth.”
The suit didn’t give details about how Verble allegedly cultivated the relationship and didn’t say which football coach allegedly introduced the two men. No response was provided to questions that the News Sentinel submitted to a Haynesworth attorney.
Verble also was listed as the contact for donations to the Jesse Mahelona Trust, which was established after the 2009 death of the former UT football player. Through a spokesman he declined to be interviewed.
And while the relationship with Haynesworth may have fractured, news accounts highlight strong ties that once existed between the men. In a 2007 story, Yahoo! Sports reported that even before an infamous on-field incident in which Haynesworth swiped another player’s face with his cleats, Verble — whom the story described as a “close confidant” — had given the player a book about learning to control his emotions. The story also said that when he was with the Tennessee Titans, Haynesworth gave Verble a game ball, which he had received from coach Jeff Fisher after notching three sacks in a game.
It’s been nearly a decade since Haynesworth was a UT athlete, but the alleged interaction described in the lawsuit would be frowned upon under current university policies.
A 2010-2011 guide to agents produced by UT’s compliance office asks athletes and their parents or guardians to “have absolutely no contact with any agent or financial adviser” until their eligibility has concluded, although the guide acknowledges that NCAA rules do not expressly forbid all contact.
The NCAA promotes college sports as an “avocation” and prohibits agents or their middlemen — also known as runners — from providing extra benefits or making agreements to represent the athletes. There’s also a Tennessee law governing agents, which requires them to register with the state and prohibits them from furnishing anything of value to an athlete before the athlete enters a representation contract. Under the law, agents who violate the latter provision can face a fine of up to $25,000 or a prison sentence of up to six years, although an official with the Secretary of State’s office — which registers agents — said that office has not received complaints about any registered agent and has not assessed any sanctions or penalties against one.
When it comes to football, the NFL Players Association has a mandatory certification program for agents, which includes limits on agent compensation, and a voluntary registration program for financial advisers. While players can hire a financial adviser who is not part of the registry, NFLPA policy prohibits agents from referring their clients to any financial adviser that is not registered.
Brad Bertani, UT’s associate athletic director for compliance, said the university warns athletes not to accept any benefits — “from a pencil to a car ride” — from agents and not to agree orally or in writing to anything with an agent.
Bertani said the university also warns athletes about runners, who might not initially reveal that they’re working for an agent.
“There’s been a lot of stories about (people) providing benefits to student-athletes, and then … when the time comes to sign they say, ‘Well, we’re going to, you know, inform the NCAA if you don’t sign with us,'” Bertani said.
The consequences for running afoul of the rules can be harsh. This year, for example, the NCAA yanked 30 football scholarships from the University of Southern California football team, vacated 14 victories from the 2004 and 2005 seasons — including the 2005 Orange Bowl victory that earned the Trojans a BCS championship — and imposed a two-year bowl ban on the team.
The sanctions came after an investigation determined that former star running back Reggie Bush had received lavish gifts from two fledgling sports marketers hoping to sign him. Bush has previously said he disagrees with the NCAA’s findings, but last week the player announced he would forfeit his title as the Heisman Trophy winner of 2005.
Closer to the South, the NCAA in recent months has reportedly probed the relationship between agents and players from several SEC and Atlantic Coast Conference schools, including Alabama, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.
This month , the NCAA announced that Alabama’s Marcell Dareus would have to sit out two games and repay $1787.17, for violating NCAA rules regarding preferential treatment and agent benefits, while highly touted Georgia receiver A.J. Green was suspended four games for selling a game jersey for $1,000 to someone who qualifies as an agent.
The controversies have prompted a strong response from coaches, including Alabama coach Nick Saban, who organized a conference call with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, other coaches, and a variety of other stakeholders in regard to the agent issue.
The talk of agents preying on players is interesting, though, given the current system in which coaches, athletic directors, media companies and apparel-makers can make a handsome living from college sports, while the athletes who hazard concussions, broken limbs and torn ligaments don’t get a salary, although they do receive benefits including scholarships, room-and-board and free medical care. As a Sports Illustrated columnist recently noted, Green got busted for selling his used No. 8 game jersey, but Georgia’s athletic department sells 22 variations of the No. 8 jersey on its website for as much as $150 a pop.
Whatever the merits of the current system, though, local agents work hard to draw a distinction between themselves and the scofflaws who ignore NCAA and NFLPA rules. Terry Adams, whose Knoxville law firm represents former Central High School star and University of Oregon wide receiver Terence Scott, said his company doesn’t recruit on campus at all and has never been to a university’s official “agent day,” which offers some agents an opportunity to meet players who have completed their eligibility.
“We thought there should just be an alternative to, you know, having guys following you around, and … offering you this and offering you that,” Adams said.
Interestingly, Adams also said his firm probably turns down dozens of players every year because they don’t fit the firm’s profile or they expect more out of the relationship than what the firm thinks it should be. But he isn’t the only one who believes it pays for an agent to be picky.
Tim Irwin, Knox County’s Juvenile Court judge and former offensive lineman with the Minnesota Vikings, spent years as a sports agent, although he now has only three NFL clients under contract and isn’t looking for more.
Irwin said he would go to college all-star games, send inquiries through the mail or even meet parents as he was trying to line up clients, but that he mostly worked off of referrals and didn’t use runners because “I didn’t want to be responsible for their actions.”
“The thing about agents (is) that the relationship runs both ways,” he said. “I mean, you have to have up-front guys that you’re working with, that will pay their bills and be responsible to you as well.”
(Irwin knows a thing or two about the competitive nature of the business. At a meeting in 1997, according to news accounts, he confronted fellow agent Drew Rosenhaus and accused him of being a cancer.
Rosenhaus, in his autobiography — with its insistent alpha-male style perfectly summarized by its title, “A Shark Never Sleeps” — wrote that Irwin accused him of taking one of Irwin’s clients and tells of how Rosenhaus denied the charge, and told agents who applauded Irwin that he looked forward to competing against them. “They knew better than to incite the Shark,” Rosenhaus wrote, ominously.)
For coaches, the struggle to keep their players on the straight and narrow sometimes calls for creativity. Will Bartholomew, a former UT fullback who is now CEO of a chain of athletic training centers, recalled that at one point before UT’s 1998 season, star linebacker Al Wilson told the team he had been talking to agents and was suspended for a game. Bartholomew recalled that “our jaws dropped,” before the team learned that the admission was only a ruse.
In an interview, former UT coach Phillip Fulmer recalled that Wilson “did an unbelievable job. You know, we kind of coached him up a little bit, and he apologized to the team. … (He said), ‘We all have to give our rings back from the ’97 team.’ ”
The ex-coach said the point of the exercise was to reinforce the message that bad things can happen if players deal with an agent at the wrong time.
During his coaching career, Fulmer was represented by Jimmy Sexton, a Memphis-based agent whose firm also represents Saban, University of Southern California coach Lane Kiffin, Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten and former Florida superstar Tim Tebow.
Sexton is a former student manager for the UT football team, although he isn’t the only agent with Volunteer ties.
Chad Speck, who represents former Vols Eric Berry andHaynesworth, is a graduate of UT’s College of Law who got his start in the legal business by clerking for the firm of UT supporter Jeff Hagood, who is the president of the Knoxville Quarterback Club and co-authored Fulmer’s book about the 1998 national championship season. The director of client development at Speck’s firm,Allegiant Athletic Agency, is Judy Jackson, the former associate director of student athlete welfare for UT’s men’s athletic department.
Fulmer said he could name a long list of people who do things the right way — he included Sexton and Speck in that list — and cited one of his former players who had a great agent and adviser, played in the NFL and doesn’t have to work again unless he wants to. “And those are the good stories you like to hear,” he added.
As long as giant contracts await standout athletes, though, the good stories will almost certainly be accompanied by the horror stories. David Moon, a local investment adviser who played football at UT in the early 1980s, said a former first-round draft pick — he declined to say which sport, but said the athlete was not a former Vol — was once referred to his firm after the athlete discovered, in Moon’s words, that “his financial adviser was having difficulty distinguishing the financial adviser’s assets and the player’s assets.”
Moon said an attorney got involved and referred the player to Moon’s firm,which began trying to gather records related to assets the athlete owned. Eventually, he said, the brokerage confirmations and statements were handed over in a garbage bag.
For his part, Moon said he doesn’t solicit former athletes, although his firm does “a pretty nice job” of working with them after they fi re their first adviser — “when they begin to acquire a little expensively acquired wisdom about how the real world works.”