NCAA Stance Toward Agents Makes No Sense

I love words.

This should be self-evident, given that I work in a field where words are so important, but I mean I really like words.

The importance of selecting precisely the right word for a given situation matters. There is a difference between “convince” and “persuade,” and when people get that wrong it bothers me. People who know me know that words like “strategy” and “fueled” drive me crazy, because they’re puffed up words that are designed to make things sound more important than they really are.

Even worse are the words that are designed to obscure meaning. Whenever you see words like “layoff” or “casualties,” keep in mind that someone is trying to keep you from thinking about people being fired or killed.

So when we write about the people who represent amateur players in the draft process, I want to call them “agents.” Because that’s what they are. They are people acting on behalf of players in negotiations with teams.

But because the NCAA is a bureaucracy on par with the former Soviet Union—both in scale and appreciation for delusional propaganda—it forces baseball to use the term “advisers” when describing the relationship between representative and client.

Normally, this wouldn’t really bother me. I expect bureaucratic organizations to come up with obfuscations. And the people that brought you “student-athlete” and the “Football Bowl Subdivision” are as good at it as anyone. They can use their ridiculous term, and we can try to tell the truth.

When it affects the way we do our job, though, it’s another matter.

Denying Reality

The NCAA came under scrutiny in September when The Atlantic Monthly published an extended, detailed dissection of how the organization exploits its players. It mentioned the cases of Andy Oliver and James Paxton, but it put me in mind of Mark Prior and Jeremy Sowers.  Before Prior and Sowers, the NCAA paid only sporadic attention to player-agent relations in baseball, operating with a de facto “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

Heading into the 2001 College World Series, however, a newspaper report indicated that Prior had an agent—common knowledge in the baseball industry, but apparently news to the NCAA. The night before Prior was supposed to pitch for Southern California, Prior had to go through a hearing to prove that his agent was only an adviser and there had been no “illegal contact,” thus averting a suspension.

The next spring, after Sowers had been drafted by the Reds but did not sign, the NCAA suspended Sowers for 10 percent of the 2002 season because of illegal contact between the Reds and Sowers’ agent/adviser. Keep in mind that Sowers never had any interest or intention of signing with the Reds, and did not initiate the contact or gain any benefit from it. Still, the suspension stood.

From this point, the NCAA started paying more attention to baseball and had more money for enforcement. So the agent/adviser relationship had to go even deeper undercover. When it does bubble to the surface, as in the cases of Oliver and Paxton, the NCAA comes down hard. You’ll remember that Oliver was suspended at Oklahoma State for having an agent during negotiations with the Twins when he was drafted out of high school in 2006. He became embroiled in a lawsuit with the NCAA that was eventually settled.

Paxton was drafted out of Kentucky in 2009 by the Blue Jays. He declined to sign, but the NCAA busted him for having an agent, too, and he didn’t play in 2010 before getting drafted again by the Mariners.

Set aside that these players were punished for doing the same thing that virtually every premium player in the draft does. And set aside that the NCAA punishes basketball and football players for having any contact with agents, while baseball players are allowed to do it as long as they don’t talk about it.

What irks me is that it affects the way Baseball America covers the draft. We have to use the wrong word to describe the agents who represent amateur players—the reason you see that word “adviser” in our stories—and we actually have to withhold information that we should publish.

We could easily give you a list of agents for the top 200 draft prospects each year. We have the list and use it internally to assist us in our reporting. But if we published it, the NCAA would rain hell upon the players listed there. And if we use the word “agent” in a story, the NCAA could pursue action against the player.

You could argue that we should do those things anyway, consequences be damned. But for one, we would be punishing people who help us bring you information about the game. And for another, we would be dragging teenagers into a quagmire they really want no part of. They’re just following standard baseball draft procedure.

No, what needs to change is the NCAA. Either allow players to have agents in an arms length relationship, or don’t. Either acknowledge that representation is fair and beneficial to players going into a process that can involve hundreds of thousands of dollars, or ban it altogether. As in many areas, however, the NCAA wants to have it both ways.

The current system of players having representation works for players, agents and teams. Everyone knows how the process works, and how to work within it.

Only the NCAA wants to turn a blind eye to it, refusing to acknowledge that baseball is different from other sports. And the proper word for that is “ridiculous.”