But the person at the center of the infraction – the sports agent – skates free with no punishment.

That inequity will no longer exist in Ohio, Attorney General Richard Cordray vowed yesterday.

Dusting off a rarely used state law, Cordray sent warning letters yesterday to 91 agents registered with the Ohio Athletic Commission, a state agency that licenses those who negotiate professional-sports contracts for athletes.

He told them that if they affect the eligibility of collegiate athletes, they will be punished.

“Ohio law provides our higher-education institutions a means to recover damages from an agent whose illegal actions result in harm to a school,” Cordray’s letter says. “I will not hesitate to enforce these provisions. … Nor will I hesitate to refer any such violations for criminal prosecution.”

The hammer can fall not only on registered agents but also on those who act as “runners” or “advisers” – people who also develop relationships with athletes in hopes of cashing in on their eventual earnings in professional sports.

“It is our position that they should be licensed and registered,” Cordray said. “And we will treat them as agents.”

The get-tough stance comes on the heels of numerous recent cases nationwide of rogue agents taking actions that benched talented college athletes and at least embarrassed their schools: Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Southern California.

The events were so troubling to University of Cincinnati athletic officials that they asked Cordray to do something, which prompted yesterday’s warning.

“It is a problem attacking the foundation of amateurism,” Cincinnati athletic director Mike Thomas said.

The illegal relationship between an agent and former USC running back Reggie Bush prompted him to return his Heisman Trophy. It also resulted in the loss of football scholarships at USC and, among other things, a two-year ban on postseason play, which will cost the school millions in lost bowl revenue.

“Students and schools are at times being forced to pay the price for sleazy behavior by agents, while the agents who stand to profit – sometimes enormously – by manipulating others remain unaccountable for their actions,” Cordray said. “We will not tolerate such behavior in Ohio.”

The law allows Cordray’s office to seek financial damages from agents to recoup losses by universities, such as bowl revenue. Violations also can result in first-degree misdemeanor charges, which can carry a maximum jail sentence of six months.

Policing of agents still falls on the universities, which are bound by NCAA rules to monitor contact with athletes and report infractions.

The Indianapolis-based NCAA, powerless to control rogue agents, applauds efforts to get tough.

“The only people who can take action to regulate agents are the professional players associations and the various state agencies working to enforce agent law in those states that have it,” said NCAA spokeswoman Stacey Osborn.

The state of Illinois, she said, recently passed a law that mirrors the Ohio law, which has been on the books for nearly a decade.

“Hopefully, there will be a day where every state has those laws,” said Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel.

To force a wholesale change, however, the National Football League Players Association, the union that represents professional athletes, also needs to be willing to punish offenders.

“There have been some players that have been ineligible in the NCAA, and then there’s been no effect on their draft status, no effect on roster status, no effect on making money in the NFL. So really, what did they lose? They lost their college eligibility, which hurt their college,” Tressel said yesterday during his weekly news conference.

Bush faced no punishment from the NFL for his role in the Trojans’ scandal.

“Sports agents, through money and access, can wield a lot of power over student athletes,” Cordray said. “Strong enforcement of our law governing agent contact with athletes is the best deterrent to them exercising this power.”

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