Oregon State senior lefthander Ben Wetzler was suspended Friday for 20 percent of his season—11 games—for violating the NCAA’s “no agent” rule. He is eligible to return to action next Sunday, March 3.
“According to the facts of the case, which were agreed upon by the school and the NCAA, Wetzler sought help from an agent who attended meetings where Wetzler negotiated contract terms with the team,” the NCAA said in a release. “NCAA rules allow a baseball student-athlete to receive advice from a lawyer or agent regarding a proposed professional sports contract. However, if the student-athlete is considering returning to an NCAA school, that advisor may not negotiate on behalf of a student-athlete or be present during discussions of a contract offer, including phone calls, email or in-person conversations.”
The NCAA began investigating Wetzler in November after the Phillies—who drafted him in the fifth round last June—reported to the NCAA that he and sixth-rounder Jason Monda of Washington State violated the “no agent” rule. Monda was cleared by the NCAA last week, just before the start of the season. Oregon State vice president for university relations and marketing Steve Clark, the university’s point man for this case with the NCAA, told Baseball America on Friday, “Our understanding is that the Phillies reported it. You have to ask the Phillies organization why—and I’d be interested to know what they’d say.” He said he was not at liberty to discuss the evidence presented in the case.
The Phillies released a statement Saturday that read: “The Phillies did participate in the NCAA investigation and a ruling has been issued. We believe it is inappropriate to comment further on either the negotiation with the player or the action taken by the NCAA.”
The vast majority of baseball draft prospects violate the “no agent” rule, and Wetzler’s violation was even more minor than most, because he handled the actual negotiations on his own—but at some point during the process, his advisor was also present, according to the NCAA. Major league scouting directors have often told Baseball America that they prefer dealing directly with agents, who know the ins and outs of the draft process. That is the industry norm for baseball, which is why the only players who get punished for violating the “no agent” rule are those who are turned in by a scorned former agent, or a major league team that failed to sign its draftee. But the last known case of a big league team directly reporting a violation to the NCAA was in 1992, when the White Sox turned in A.J. Hinch.
It is understandable that a big league team would be miffed that a player it drafted inside the top 10 rounds decided not to sign, because under the current draft rules, the team loses the ability to spend the money allocated for that draft pick if the player does not sign. But every year, a handful of players change their minds about signing, and teams ordinarily just grumble privately about it. When the NCAA contacts clubs asking if there was a violation of the “no agent” rule, teams deny it. There is no reason for big league clubs to cooperate with NCAA investigations, because big league teams have an incentive to preserve good relations with players, coaches and agents. Many college coaches and agents have spoken up this week to say they plan to restrict the Phillies’ access to their players after this incident.
See also: Baseball America’s ‘No Agent’ archives
“As of today, the Phillies are out,” one agent who advises numerous high-profile prospects said Thursday. “If the Phillies call for an in-home visit, the Phillies are not getting into any more of our households. We’re going to shut down all communication with the Phillies—no questionnaires returned, no communication with the Phillies’ scouts about when players are going to pitch and no communication about signability information. You can’t have this adversarial relationship between teams and players, and then have them be able to hold that over the players: ‘You’d better take this deal or I’m going to turn you in.’”
Clark confirmed that all of the facts in the case were established by Jan. 5, but it took OSU until Feb. 18 to officially submit a request for Wetzler’s reinstatement.
“The practice with the NCAA and representatives of the university in this case—including our attorneys, our compliance officers who are employed by the university—is there is a process of evaluating the facts, and coming to an agreement of what the facts are,” Clark said. “That process was very time consuming, it’s back and forth. It took until Feb. 18 for those discussions to be completed . . . Understand that (NCAA investigators) were involved in this matter in evaluation well before the 18th.”
To the NCAA’s credit, it acted fairly quickly once it received the application for reinstatement, issuing a ruling in three days.
Clark said Oregon State proposed a 10 percent suspension as a way of acknowledging that there was a violation of the NCAA bylaw. But the school made it clear that it thinks the bylaw is seriously flawed by issuing a scathing press release.
“This is really a shame,” Clark said in the release. “To be clear, Ben received no money, nor did he enter into an agreement with the intent of hiring an agent to negotiate on his behalf. The violation was a technicality, and we strongly believe that it is overly harsh for him to lose 20 percent of his senior season because of that.
“Oregon State believes that this penalty does not fairly represent Ben’s culpability in the matter or the seriousness of the violation . . . A student-athlete sought advice on whether to go pro or return to school. He received that advice, and now he is being punished by the NCAA for making a decision to complete his education—a decision that we should all applaud. This is inexplicable.”
In recent years, various NCAA officials have repeatedly stood up in front of coaches at the annual American Baseball Coaches Association convention and acknowledged that players need help negotiating contracts, and that the agent policy for baseball should be reevaluated. The NCAA knows that baseball should not be treated the same as football and basketball, because the baseball draft takes place during the season and players retain collegiate eligibility after they are drafted, unlike football and basketball players, who must declare their entrance into professional drafts that take place after the season.
But so far, the rules have not changed. Kevin Lennon, the NCAA’s vice president of membership and academic affairs, said at this January’s ABCA convention that the NCAA is working on creating a new governing structure that could help lead to changes.
“I think the best chance of that rule being addressed is in a new governing structure,” Lennon told BA on Friday. “That’s being worked on right now. I think that will be a good stimulus for this conversation. It’s a hard issue to get people to totally agree how best for it to play out. It’s a hard issue, and it has not gotten enough membership support.”
Maybe the Wetzler case, which gained real traction in the mainstream sports media this week after the Phillies’ nearly unprecedented and widely reviled conduct came to light, will help spur change.
“Something should be done,” Clark told BA. “This should be a matter that is concerning to more member institutions of the NCAA than Oregon State alone.
“It’s time for grown-ups to act like grown-ups.”