Don’t Bash The Messenger

Tell-all agent Josh Luchs could have a Canceco-like impact |

BY GEORGE DOHRMANN

Is Josh Luchs another Jose Canseco? That’s a succinct way to assess the potential impact of Luch’s admission in last week’s SI (Confessions of an Agent, Oct.18) that he paid more than 30 college players in two decades as an NFL agent.

In Canceco’s book Juiced , published in 2005, the former major league slugger implicated some of the players who would become the faces of baseball’s steroid era: Mark Mcgwire, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmiero. Though Canceco was branded a rat and dismissed by critics as a less-than-credible publicity seeker, his revelations triggered a chain of events-congressional hearings, the Mitchell report, etc.- that led to a stronger testing policy in the major leagues and a cleaner game.

Will Luchs’s tell-all spark a similar course of events, one that leads to fewer college athletes being offered and taking money from agents and other profiteers? Predictably, Luchs too has been pilloried in places as a discredited former agent seeking his 15 minutes of fame, and in the journalism-free zone of sports talk radio some of the pundits’ reactions to his story took a “nothing-new-here” tone. But there was plenty new. His claims were corroborated by eight former players, and there is little doubt that, like Canceco, he has raised awareness of a thorny issue. Fans were not shocked to learn that some athletes accepted money, but to have so many specific players named made the problem much less abstract in a way that will alter the way that some perceive college football.

Luchs’s admission also came at a time when the agent problem is being addressed on several fronts. The NCAA’s Agent, Gambling and Amateurism division has opened investigations at more than a half-dozen schools in the past few months. The NCAA also has begun working with the NFL Players Association and others “to identify potential solutions to the problem,” according to a spokesperson.

Perhaps most significant, the state of North Carolina is investigating alleged contact between Tar Heals players and agent Gary Wichard, as well as the actions of former North Carolina assistant coach John Blake, with whom Wichard is close. Most state agent laws have been little more than paper tigers; an Associated Press review in August concluded that half of the 42 states with agent law in place had never administrated a fine or penalty. The investigation in North Carolina has progressed far enough, however, that the specter of a high profile agent under indictment seems more real than ever. (Wichard and Blake have denied wrongdoing.)

Rep. Bart Gordon (D., Tenn.), who sponsored the 2004 federal agent law, has said that it may be time for sterner penalties, and the president of the Oregon Senate last week announced plans to introduce legislation toughening that state’s agent laws, a move that other states could follow.

But will that be enough to make a difference? Baseball’s solution was straightforward; stronger testing. A fix to the agent problem, however, will need to be more layered.

“It has to start with a lifetime ban [by the NFLPA] for any agent who gets caught offering money to or paying a player,” says Derrick Fox, who represents Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith and others. “Guys are willing to take the suspensions and fines handed down now because the fines are small and they can have associates handle their clients while they’re under suspension.

Another deterrent would be consistent enforcement of state laws, which would also cover people who conduct “agent activities” but who are not certified by the NFLPA, such as runners and individuals such as aspiring marketing representatives who paid USC’s Reggie Bush and his family. “and the states need to hand out felonies,” Fox adds. “Strengthen the law so that people know they will have a felony trailing them.”

If all of Fox’s suggestions were implemented, and if the NCAA got creative-by, for example by granting full immunity to players who admit to taking money or another extra benefit from an agent- it may slow the supply of money to players. And that’s crucial, since there’s little that can be done to address the other side of the equation: demand. There would remain a portion of players willing to break the rules because 1) they need the money and 2)they don’t view taking it as improper.

“The most important component of the collegiate sports machine, the players, are witnessing these business transactions all around them- TV deals, merchandising, coaches signing big contracts- and they are the only ones prohibited from participating,” says Don Yee, whose clients include New England Patriots quarterback tom Brady. ‘The only meaningful fix would be to approach that eliminates the NCAA’s notion of amateurism.”

In short, start paying players.

However, just as baseball did not react to Canseco’s revelations by legalizing the use of performance-enhancing drugs by players, the NCAA almost certainly won’t be pushed by Luchs’s confessions into allowing players to be paid. But, short of that swing for the fences, the opportunity exists for real reform. And just as with Canceco, it’s important not to let the messenger obscure the message.

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