Last month, former NC State football player Eric Leak made headlines for giving an unnamed UNC athlete “improper benefits,” in violation of the North Carolina Uniform Athlete Agents Act (UAAA).
An article in the Raleigh News & Observer explained that Leak was also accused of defrauding former clients and possibly the Medicaid system. Both are far more serious than enriching an athlete, but in a world of sports scandals, those benefits attract attention. (In the comments section of the article, rival NC State and UNC fans argue about which school’s athletes got more benefits.)
Meanwhile the UAAA seems designed to benefit the NCAA instead of students.
The effects of the law, which is on the books in 40 states plus Washington, D.C., are clear. It restricts the number of agents in a given state by forcing them to register, and prescribes a tedious process for doing so. It further restricts the number of agents by charging them a yearly fee to operate in the state. While the fee is low in North Carolina (just $200), operating in many states can become costly.
The UAAA prohibits agents from giving anything of value to a student-athlete or the athlete’s family, friends, or anyone at all if it might “induce the athlete to enter into an agency contract.”
The law also enforces the NCAA’s eligibility policy. Any athletes who sign contracts with agents officially lose eligibility to compete as students ever again. In fact, a warning to that effect must be included (in bold capital letters) in all contracts:
WARNING TO STUDENT-ATHLETE
IF YOU SIGN THIS CONTRACT:
(1) YOU SHALL LOSE YOUR ELIGIBILITY TO COMPETE AS A STUDENT-ATHLETE IN YOUR SPORT;
(2) IF YOU HAVE AN ATHLETIC DIRECTOR, WITHIN 72 HOURS AFTER ENTERING INTO THIS CONTRACT, BOTH YOU AND YOUR ATHLETE AGENT MUST NOTIFY YOUR ATHLETIC DIRECTOR;
(3) YOU WAIVE YOUR ATTORNEY-CLIENT PRIVILEGE WITH RESPECT TO THIS CONTRACT AND CERTAIN INFORMATION RELATED TO IT; AND
(4) YOU MAY CANCEL THIS CONTRACT WITHIN 14 DAYS AFTER SIGNING IT. CANCELLATION OF THIS CONTRACT SHALL NOT REINSTATE YOUR ELIGIBILITY.
All of these provisions push a clear message to student-athletes: Stay in school. Continue to play for your college team. Don’t consider going pro. Or, at least, they conspire to deprive talented athletes their full list of options.
The NCAA tells a different story. It claims that the UAAA is necessary to “protect” student-athletes from unscrupulous agents who will use “any means necessary” to “ensnare” them. It also cites a lack of conformity across states in terms of regulating athlete-agent interactions.
But there’s little evidence the NCAA has students’ interests in mind. The UAAA, by ensuring students hear only one kind of advice—stay in school to play for the college team—allows the NCAA and universities themselves to maximize their revenues. Every year a popular athlete stays in school is another year he helps the NCAA’s bottom line.
Schools and the NCAA make millions of dollars selling media rights to college games, including a $10.8 billion, 14-year agreement with CBS Sports and Turner Broadcasting for rights to the Division I Men’s Basketball Championship Tournament. Most of the remaining revenue comes from ticket sales.
But the stars of the show—the student-athletes—are allocated money toward educations they often can’t or won’t use. Many risk injury and premature ends to their careers (and their scholarships) with little to show for it. For athletic superstars, “going pro” before graduation is sometimes the least risky course. But universities and the NCAA don’t deliver that message to students.
In 2013, the Atlantic published an exposé on the NCAA’s poor treatment of student athletes injured while playing for their college teams. Exhibit A was Stanley Doughty, a defensive tackle for the University of South Carolina, who suffered a misdiagnosed spinal injury while playing in college that went untreated, and prevented Doughty from pursuing an NFL career.
And as the Pope Center has reported, the NCAA “denies that it has a legal duty to protect student-athletes” with regard to concussions. The NCAA is hardly an advocate for student-athletes’ welfare.
Agents aren’t always altruistic either. They often want to sign superstar athletes in order to enrich themselves. Nor do the NBA and NFL always do right by their players. In many ways both organizations profit from university sports, which they use as farm leagues they don’t have to pay for.
But student-athletes shouldn’t be denied the option to talk to agents on those grounds. Collegiate and professional sports are often ruthless, demanding, and difficult. Student athletes need more direction, not less, when navigating the decisions that come with competitive athletics. Denying students access to parties who are less likely to toe the NCAA’s line simply feeds a broken system.