NCAA basketballs.
Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

The NCAA isn’t targeting Rich Paul. It’s strengthening its exploitative system.

Starting last year, NCAA players could hire an agent while declaring for the NBA draft, with the option to return to their college team if the agent is certified by the National Basketball Players Association. Now the NCAA is adopting its own certification criteria. Players who hire an agent who doesn’t meet them forfeit the right to withdraw from the draft and return to campus. 

A provision that requires agents to have a bachelors’ degree is being called the “Rich Paul Rule” because it seems targeted at the powerful representative of LeBron James and other NBA superstars. That’s certainly how James took it. Paul’s exclusion is an outcome of the new NCAA agent rules, but I doubt that’s the intent. 

Another certification criterion makes it clear that the NCAA’s real goal, as always, is preserving the sham “amateurism” model that allows member schools to exploit players. According to ESPN, agents seeking NCAA certification are required to agree that they will cooperate with its investigations of rules violations “even if the alleged violations are unrelated to (their) NCAA-agent certification.”

The rules violations the NCAA is most interested in are so-called “extra benefits” provided to players by representatives of schools. This new provision is a way for the NCAA to compel agents to help them root out the crime of paying athletes who generate massive revenues for NCAA schools without being paid salaries. This is key for the NCAA. 

Coaches or players who are implicated in NCAA wrongdoing (or have information about it) must cooperate with investigators if they want to continue coaching or playing in the NCAA. Those who decide to move on are outside of the NCAA’s reach and could ignore its requests for information (many have done so). The NCAA can bring some of those ex-players and coaches back within its reach by requiring certified agents to cooperate with investigations. 

Agents have never really been within the NCAA’s purview. It’s up to college programs to keep away agents who break its rules. Now agents who don’t help the NCAA sniff out “extra benefits” can lose certification, providing an incentive for them to snitch on players who dare accept a bigger piece of the huge pie they create. 

The NCAA is compelling players who test the draft to use only those agents who will cooperate in upholding its exploitative system. This “amateurism” scheme limits athletes to below-market compensation and enriches coaches and administrators who are less valuable. If you don’t believe that second part, look at the star NBA players and top prospects who earn more salary than the best NBA coaches and general managers even with player salaries limited by a cap while coach and GM earnings are not. 

The NCAA should have no say in which agents players pick. That’s a role rightly filled by the NBPA which, unlike the NCAA, actually represents the interests of players. The NBPA checks the backgrounds of agents and ensures they have the knowledge necessary for the job. The NCAA can’t credibly claim its new rules are meant to ensure agents are on the up and up, especially when one of its criteria is NBPA certification for three consecutive years.

The NCAA wants more control over agents as a conduit to more leverage to expose payments to players (not to mention the $250 application fee from agents). These new agent certification rules are part of a familiar pattern for the NCAA. 

The NCAA is buckling under the weight of its hypocrisy (and lawsuits) as more people notice its revenues increase exponentially while players are left out. Public and political pressure prod the NCAA to announce a new rule that gives players a bit more power. That’s why it decided to allow basketball players to return to their college program if they don’t like their NBA evaluation even if they hire an agent (a rule that also helps college programs retain talented players). 

But once the NCAA realizes it has allowed players too much freedom to determine their futures, it starts rolling the rule back. That’s what happened with its transfer rules for football and basketball players. 

Coaches griped because so many star players were being granted waivers to play immediately at their new schools (even though overall approval of requests remained about the same). That meant coaches had less power to keep good players on the roster and help them win games and make money. Predictably, the NCAA announced this summer it would crack down on the waivers, taking some power back from the (nonsalaried) players and returning it to the (multimillionaire) coaches. 

A similar dynamic is at play, if less directly, with the NCAA agent certification. The cynic in me wonders if the NCAA purposely adopted the dumb “Rich Paul Rule” to generate headlines that distract from the one requiring cooperation by certified agents in investigations. 

The reason NCAA players get “illicit” payments in the first place is because they are more valuable than the compensation they receive from schools. Now the NCAA wants to enlist player agents to help keep it that way.

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About the Author

Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham has covered the Hawks and other beats for the AJC since 2010. 
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