NCAA’s Semantics Police Restrict Players’ Rights

In the grand scheme of things, lefthander Jeremy Sowers will miss just two starts. They're non-conference games for Vanderbilt, and the nation's No. 1-ranked freshman will have plenty of time to gain experience and get ready for the upcoming Southeastern Conference season.

That Sowers has to sit out at all, though, should gall college baseball fans and give new ammunition to critics who deride the NCAA's selective attention to the sport.

Sowers must sit out 10 percent of the Commodores' 2002 season, though the NCAA does not term it a suspension. It's a “withholding condition.” The NCAA determined the Reds, who drafted Sowers 20th overall last June, improperly contacted Sowers' adviser at the request of the Sowers family.

“The problem occurs with the fact the pro team and the adviser are not allowed to have direct contact,” said Jim Booz, Vanderbilt's NCAA compliance director. “In this case, there were phone conversations initiated by the team to the adviser, and even though the adviser says there were no dollar figures discussed, the NCAA stood firm and determined it to be a violation.”

Vanderbilt appealed the NCAA's ruling, saying Sowers received no tangible benefits from the conversations in question, to no avail.

Sowers had long made it clear he did not want to sign and wanted to go to school, and a Reds source has told Baseball America the club never intended to sign Sowers. Cincinnati had used part of its 2001 draft budget to sign 2000 supplemental first-rounder Dustin Moseley and intended to balance its books by not signing its 2001 first-round pick.

Somehow, the NCAA missed this information. So a player who never wanted to break the rules, who didn't try to break any rules, gets punished.

Prior Precedent

The same thing happened during the College World Series last year. It's a baseball industry secret that no one wants to tell, but the NCAA's inconsistent use of its power means it needs to be addressed.

The night before the nationally televised Saturday game between Southern California and Georgia last year in Omaha, the Trojans thought they would have to play without ace righthander Mark Prior. A newspaper report out of Minneapolis, trying to gauge the Twins' chances of landing Prior as the draft's first overall pick, indicated Prior had an agent. The NCAA called a hearing to make sure Prior was eligible and had not been involved in any “illegal contact.”

Prior was able to prove John Boggs was only his adviser and there had been no illegal contact, but it's a wonder he was able to pitch well at all the next day. It makes his seven-inning, five-run, 13-strikeout effort in an 11-5 victory even more remarkable.

Prior did have an agent working as his adviser, of course, just as Sowers did. Technically, these agents aren't paid and aren't supposed to negotiate directly with teams. But everyone knew Boggs represented Prior, while Sowers was a client of IMG, with Jeff Berry handling the specifics.

Prior, like Sowers, went to great lengths to make sure scouts and agents knew where he stood, sending letters to every pro club prescribing where and when he could be approached and carefully screening agents during the selection process. All the preparation and care didn't matter when the NCAA saw the word “agent,” though.

Looking The Other Way

Meanwhile, the NCAA doesn't act when the agent/adviser line gets blatantly crossed. It happens every summer in the Cape Cod League, where agents and players mix before games with little fear of retribution.

High-profile players have been targets before, such as when Maine's Billy Swift was forced to sit out 18 games in 1984. A second-round pick, Swift was punished for meeting with Twins officials about a contract.

Similarly, the NCAA blocked Oklahoma State's Mitch Simons, a preseason All-American, from returning to play in 1991. Simons verbally agreed with the Royals on a contract the previous summer, but wasn't able to restore his eligibility even though he never signed the contract.

When the draft happened during the College World Series, the agent/adviser line got obliterated. In 1998—four days before he would start for Arizona State in the national championship game—Ryan Mills addressed reporters about getting picked sixth overall by the Twins. Mills was more than willing to admit he already had agreed to a $2 million bonus.

Agent Jeff Moorad negotiated the deal, and whether you call him an adviser and whether he gets paid before or after the deal, Moorad is what he is—an agent. The NCAA should be paying attention to facts, not semantics.

Mills bears no fault in this. College players are in an untenable position with the draft occurring during the season instead of in the offseason, as is the case in football and basketball. The answer would be a more flexible rule by the NCAA, allowing players to have counsel. Isn't that a fundamental right, even in a private organization like the NCAA?

If the counsel has to be paid, so be it. If the NCAA is ready for amateur deregulation, it should be ready to allow baseball players to have advisers—and for them to be called what they are, agents—for negotiations with multimillion-dollar companies, which major league organizations are.

That's all players like Jeremy Sowers want: advice and counsel. They shouldn't be punished for it.

John Manuel is Baseball America's senior writer for college baseball. He can be reached by e-mail at