New NCAA Basketball Rule Could Lead To Push For Liberalizing Baseball Agent Rules
The NCAA this week pushed through a significant reform package for men’s basketball as it works to recover from the blockbuster FBI investigation into the seedier side of college basketball recruiting. The changes are widespread, but among them is the provision that underclassmen men’s basketball players can use agents without forfeiting the rest of their eligibility.
There are several stipulations to the rule -- players must request an evaluation of their draft potential from the NBA’s undergraduate advisory committee and the relationship must be terminated when the player returns to college -- but it looks awfully familiar to those around baseball. It shares much of the same framework as the bylaw that was passed in 2016, allowing high school baseball players to use agents after they are drafted, provided they end the relationship upon entering college.
At the time the rule was passed through the Power Five Conference’s autonomy process, it was groundbreaking. The NCAA had always put up a firewall between its athletes and agents, to not compromise its amateurism model. But it was also a half measure as it did nothing for current college athletes.
Still, it was a starting point and it at least allowed for prep players to officially have legal representation while they were negotiating life-changing contracts without worry that their college eligibility would be compromised. A similar rule was passed for hockey this year and now men’s basketball has gotten in on the action.
Following basketball’s rule changes, it is fair now to wonder if the ability to employ agents will now expand to college baseball players. Texas Christian coach Jim Schlossnagle, the American Baseball Coaches Association Division I chairman, said he thinks baseball needs the rule change as much as any sport.
“There’s always been discussion among coaches because it’s unfair to allow high school players to do it and not allow college players to do it,” Schlossnagle said. “A college player needs just as much help as a high school player and you could apply the exact same rule.”
Scott Boras, who played at Pacific, where his No. 7 is retired, has long been critical of the NCAA rules preventing players from having agents represent them when they are drafted. When the rules were changed in 2016 to allow high school players access to representation he told Baseball America that it was important for all draftees to have access to the most information possible.
“I think every athlete needs expert legal counsel because the teams all have it,” he said. “When you’re looking at this, if the teams deem it wise to have legal representation in their organization for all their activities and conduct, why is it not wise for the athletes to deserve the same?”
With basketball now opening the door for college athletes to be represented by agents while still retaining their NCAA eligibility, it is possible that baseball will soon follow. The authors of any new legislation for baseball won’t be able to simply copy basketball’s rules due to the differences between the two sports’ drafts, but the framework is now in place and it shouldn’t be hard to tweak.
In basketball, players who are considering leaving college early may now hire an agent if they request an evaluation from the NBA Undergraduate Advisory Committee. Players may only reach an agreement with an agent after their season ends and when players are picking an agent, the agent may pay for meals and transportation for the player and their family “if the expenses are related to the agent selection process,” the player does not miss class and the money is spent where the player lives or goes to school. Agents can also pay for meals, transportation and lodging for any meetings with an agent or a pro team. Any agreement with an agent must be made in writing, disclosed to the school and then terminated when a player decides to return to school.
One of the biggest differences between the new basketball rules and those governing high school baseball players is that baseball players are only allowed to use an agent after they have been drafted. The basketball rules allow for a more proactive arrangement and one that is sorely needed in baseball where much of an agent’s value is in the weeks leading up to the draft and during the draft itself, when teams are ascertaining how much a player is willing to sign for.
But that need also leads to one of the significant obstacles to squaring the basketball rules with baseball and it’s a familiar one: the draft’s timing. In basketball, even the Final Four has been over for almost three months before the NBA holds its draft. In contrast, MLB’s draft is held during the NCAA Tournament. Because of the NCAA’s commitment to its amateurism model, it is difficult to imagine it letting players employ agents during their competitive season. So many of the benefits that basketball players will have access to under the new rules—particularly having an agent pick up the cost of trips to work out for teams—would not be available to many baseball players. And even moving the draft to Omaha before the College World Series, as MLB has explored in the past, would not fully solve that problem.
Louisville coach Dan McDonnell, an ABCA vice president, said it was a smart move for the NCAA to grant basketball players more access to agents and is hopeful to see something similar come to baseball.
“We need to continue to make decisions on what’s best for student-athletes,” he said. “We made that rule in high school for our players and I think that’s what they’re doing for the basketball kids. Why not put them in a position to get the advice they need and leave the door open for them to come back to school?”
Because it is difficult to prove, it is rare for the NCAA to punish college players for using agents in negotiations, but there have been several high-profile cases over the years. James Paxton was suspended in 2010 by Kentucky after Blue Jays president Paul Beeston told reporters the team negotiated with Boras after they drafted the lefthander in 2009. Boras denies he broke NCAA rules, but the fallout cost Paxton his senior season. Ben Wetzler in 2014 was suspended for 11 games by the NCAA after the Phillies took the nearly unprecedented step of turning him in for violating the rule after they drafted him in the fifth round in 2013 but were unable to sign him. The Phillies also reported Jason Monda, their sixth-round pick, but the NCAA cleared him of any wrongdoing.
Wetzler has since become outspoken against the rules restricting players from using agents during draft negotiations.
Even if baseball players couldn’t reap all the benefits that basketball players are, any change to give them more access to agents and their expert advice in navigating the draft process would be a positive. In this case, the perfect cannot be the enemy of the good.