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Alabama Football And The Sports Agent Problem

On December 29, 2008 -- just four days before his team was scheduled to play in the Sugar Bowl -- Alabama's head football coach Nick Saban announced that one of his key players was being suspended for the game.

The Crimson Tide's All-American left tackle Andre Smith, the heart of the team's formidable offensive line who would be selected by the Cincinnati Bengals in the first round of the NFL draft a few months later, was forced to miss the final game of his college career.

His absence was a key part of the Crimson Tide's unexpected and complete defeat at the hands of the Utah Utes on New Year's Day 2009 and now seems to be a precursor to the onslaught of anti-agent sentiment sweeping the sport.

The incident seems painfully prophetic this week as it has been revealed that the NCAA is investigating allegations of agent misconduct involving players from UNC, South Carolina and Florida. Yet, given this sudden resurgence of the issue and the growing success of the Crimson Tide football program it seems worth going back and re-examining exactly what happened in the Smith case and how the University of Alabama Athletics Department chose to deal with it.

At the time, Saban only noted that Smith had been suspended for an unspecified violation of team rules. The Birmingham News later confirmed the action was linked to a family member of Smith's having contact with a sports agent.

This is an important point. Smith was not suspended from the team for having contact with an agent, according to the paper, but rather because he refused to cooperate with the athletic department's investigation into the matter. Coach Saban acted even though it now seems likely the offense would not have been classified as a violation by the NCAA.

Smith eventually netted a $42 million contract from the Bengals making it exceedingly clear why there had been an effort to represent him.

When the NCAA's sanctions against USC came down earlier this month the focus on agents became critical once again. Yet the case mars the issue given the excesses of the Trojan players and the laughable lack of oversight on the part of the coaches and administration to do anything about it. The USC situation is the lowest hanging fruit and the newer ones have demonstrated the NCAA plans to climb higher into the trees where situations are a lot less clear cut.

Keep in mind, unlike recruiting where there are strict regulations as to what access college coaches can have to potential players, agents have free reign. According to NCAA guidelines an agent can make unlimited contact with a player with the caveat no gifts or benefits are exchanged and there is no firm commitment made to sign. And schools are increasingly being caught in the middle of the mess.

Since the UNC story broke, several reporters have talked to Rachel Newman-Baker, the NCAA's Director of Agent, Gambling and Amateurism Activities, and gleaned a bit of insight into what might have shifted in terms of the issue. Newman-Baker now has a seven-person team that investigates these issues.

The NCAA, she says, is capitalizing on a backlash against the abuses and an increasing savvy using things like social media to ferret out the abuses.

"People are tired of watching the abuses and are more willing to talk," she told ESPN's Joe Schad. "We're doing a better job of knowing who to ask and who to talk to."

Still, the Florida case bears one key resemblance to Alabama's in 2002 and Clemson's in 1982 -- the investigation was sparked by an anonymous tipster. And an inquiry from a bogus tip is just as difficult for the institution to handle as one that proves to be valid.

The logical reaction for schools would seem to be cracking down on agents and denying them access to players. The danger is hamstringing college players from dealing with agents until their final game of eligibility. With the increased importance of the NFL Scouting Combine at the end of February, that leaves just six weeks to wend their way through the difficult process of separating the wheat from the chaff in terms of representation.

All this must be handled while remaining in shape for that event and handling the overtures from the pro clubs that begin pretty much when the final whistle of their final bowl game sounds.

In this respect, the Smith case stands out as a warning as well. He spent the weeks after the Sugar Bowl waffling between agents before eventually settling with his first choice Alvin Keels of Global Management Group. The situation led to his disastrous (non) appearance in the 2009 NFL combine.

Earlier this year, The Mobile Press-Register's Gentry Estes penned a superb story examining the changes the Smith case has wrought on the approach to the agent situation at Alabama. Instead of increasing the restrictions on players in respect to contact with agents, Coach Saban chose to bring them in house.

Step one was hiring Cornerstone Sports Consulting out of Leesburg, Va. to help players in the process of preparing for the NFL, particularly in the area of acquiring representation. The group is led by Joe Mendes, a long-time NFL executive and former vice president of football operations for the Washington Redskins.

Step two was to bring the process in house. Since last season, selected agents have been invited onto campus to interview rising players. For the 2009 seniors the first round of on-campus interviews occurred in July and a second round took place in December.

In the story, Estes quoted former offensive lineman Mike Johnson saying the school's implied seal of approval "made all the difference in the world," in his decision to go with Atlanta-based ProFiles Sports Inc. run by Pat Dye Jr.

"I met with five agents total, and without naming any of them," Johnson told the Press-Register. "It's like a lot of them had track records of kind of questionable things or something had gone on in their careers."

Yet schools must tread carefully in the wake of the USC sanctions. The line between permitting agent's access and giving them  free reign may seem clear between the two cases but likely isn't nearly as distinct in real life. From the institutions point of view the dangers of excess are extreme.

None of this is academic for Alabama fans. The Smith debacle was painfully reminiscent of another Sugar Bowl incident involving a Crimson Tide player and an agent that transpired 16 years earlier and had much more painful repercussions for the program.

On the evening of Jan. 1, 1993 after Alabama defeated the Miami Hurricanes for the National Championship, Crimson Tide cornerback Antonio Langham was out partying on Bourbon Street. At some point in the evening he drunkenly agreed to be represented by an agent and even signed the contract on a bar napkin.

Langham later told coaches about the incident but they didn't act and the NCAA later ruled he was ineligible when playing in 1993. The result was an entire season forfeited and Alabama was put on notice by the association (a situation that would have devastating results less than a decade later).

Moreover, by undertaking the responsibility to guide blue-chip athletes through the agent selection process, schools may also come afoul with the NCAA's increasing paranoia concerning ancillary staff.

Earlier this year the Knight Commission limiting the number of staff a school assigned to a sport for the sake of "competitive equity." The proposal seems to have legs as an NCAA surveyed Division I members and found 81 percent believe downsizing support personnel is necessary.

For the most part, this type of restriction is aimed at recruiting resources by the top level programs but, to a great extent, these are exactly the sort of personnel that the same schools keep on hand to help top players make the transition from the college game to the pros. Losing them will simply deny players an institutional resource that is their best defense against the pressures posed by unsavory agents.

One theme that has been repeatedly invoked since the UNC story broke is that there should be legal restrictions on agents to prohibit such activities. And, it turns out, there are laws on the books in 38 states outlining conduct of agents -- including Alabama. Again, it's worth taking a gander at the Smith situation to gauge efficacy.

In the wake of the Sugar Bowl defeat, Alabama Attorney General Troy King vowed to use the state's laws to prosecute the scofflaws. Four months later, amid much less fanfare, the AG announced the investigation had been dropped since "no probable cause to believe there had been any violations of Alabama's Sports Agents statutes."

And it should be remembered that the standard for legal prosecution and what the NCAA required to level sanctions on a program are hardly equivalent. Just because one chooses to act is no assurance the other will follow suit. And it's hardly bad politics to champion the student-athletes whose achievements are beloved by ones constituency.

A big ole tip of the houndstooth fedora to CarrotTop4 for pointing me to the Press-Register's story. - kleph