Legislators look to stiffen law on student athletes

In the wake of the suspension of Georgia running back Todd Gurley, state legislators are considering ways to punish people who jeopardize college athletes’ eligibility.

Rep. Chuck Sims, R-Ambrose, sponsored an existing law that allows colleges to sue anyone who coerces athletes into breaking NCAA rules in specific situations. It allows colleges to sue for lost revenue caused by self-imposed disciplinary actions, including suspensions, that occur when players receive improper benefits.

The current law allows for misdemeanor charges only in two cases, but legislators are thinking about expanding its criminal component.

“This law was created so the university could have some kind of retribution,” Sims said. Since being signed into law by Gov. Sonny Perdue in 2003, it hasn’t been tested in court.

“We are exploring all legal options,” University of Georgia Athletic Director Greg McGarity told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Tuesday.

Memorabilia dealer Bryan Allen paid for items Gurley signed, according to emails he sent to various media outlets. Allen was angry that the junior signed autographs with other dealers, diminishing the value of his goods, so he told the university’s compliance department.

Allen has retained Atlanta lawyer Ed Garland, who represented former Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis and Thrashers hockey player Dany Heatley in criminal cases.

Shane Smith, a Cedartown man linked to the case, has also hired a lawyer. Smith was interviewed by the university and is believed to have witnessed the signings.

“I doubt the school would go so far as to sue the dealer, but they could,” said Ellen Williams Reynolds, a lobbyist at the state Capitol who helped push for the bill in 2003. “The thought was that if you put this out there, it might make people think twice before interfering with student athletes in a way that could affect any kid’s chance to play.”

The Georgia state law was passed after a case that brought severe NCAA sanctions to the University of Alabama in the early 2000s. Crimson Tide boosters broke rules by paying a high school coach to get a commitment from highly-rated defensive tackle Albert Means.

Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, said he and other lawmakers are exploring ways to bolster the law, in case a similar situation occurs in the future. The goal would be to make sure universities can sue those who entice an amateur athlete into breaking the NCAA rules set by their scholarships.

“You shouldn’t be able to keep your gains,” said Fleming, vice chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which considers bills related to laws, courts and judges. “I have spoken to several other legislators who see that something is not quite right here.”

Paying student athletes impermissibly could become a criminal act under future legislation. The current law only makes it a misdemeanor in two cases: if an athlete is paid to attend a specific school or if an athlete is rewarded financially for performing well.

Gurley was considered a Heisman Trophy front-runner before the university suspended him indefinitely Oct. 9 while investigating claims that he violated NCAA rules by receiving improper benefits. The junior allegedly received at least $400 to sign 80 pieces of memorabilia, according to multiple media reports.

Fleming believes college athletes should be protected from those who could capitalize on their image with no risk of consequences.

“If you’re a 20-year-old college kid and someone is flashing hundred-dollar bills in front of you, it’s a big temptation,” Fleming said. “And then the guy who does that walks away scot-free.”

That’s why Fleming wants to introduce a bill in early January – the beginning of the spring legislative session – that would add a fine for those who profit off student athletes while breaking college compensation rules.

“We’re not talking a felony here,” Fleming said. “We have laws against parking in handicapped spots, laws against littering. Neither one is a capital offense, but we do have a rule against it because it’s not good behavior and we want to discourage it.”

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