Agents for Amateurs?

Today, we’re going to look at the NCAA’s commitment to amateurism. For those of you who are new to Flagrant and the world of college sports, athletic amateurism means that NCAA athletes are amateurs and are therefore, not allowed to collect money for their images, likenesses, and skills. Once a college athlete collects cash for any of those things, (s)he is ineligible to compete in the NCAA.

In spite of the Manual’s emphasis on regulating amateurism, the actual written commitment is really short, so here’s the full text:

Member institutions shall conduct their athletics programs for students who choose to participate in intercollegiate athletics as a part of their educational experience and in accordance with NCAA bylaws, thus maintaining a line of demarcation between student-athletes who participate in the Collegiate Model and athletes competing in the professional model.

This is a loaded paragraph, given recent news.

Earlier this week, the NCAA released a statement outlining its new standards for college athletes who want to use agents to go pro. Which is interesting, because the NCAA constantly stresses that its athletes are amateurs in order to maintain a “line of demarcation” between collegiate and professional sports. It looks like that line is being blurred, but of course the NCAA isn’t framing it that way. According to the statement:

“NCAA legislation will allow a select few student-athletes to meet with and be represented by an NCAA-certified agent without losing eligibility.  To accomplish this, the NCAA created an agent certification program applicable to MBB agents beginning in August 2019.”

In essence, the NCAA is so committed to amateurism that it is regulating the professional pursuits of its athletes, who are, by definition, not professional athletes.

Say that out loud. Slowly. It’s doesn’t make sense, right?

My hot take is that the NCAA is finally admitting that its athletes are closer to professionals than the head office would like to admit, so of course, the NCAA has to control them. That alone is a lot to unpack.

But let’s move away from amateurism for a minute, because the requirements for agents are also interesting. Here are the baseline requirements all NCAA agents are required to meet:

  1. Have a bachelor’s degree
  2. Have been [National Basketball Players’ Association] certified for at least three consecutive years and be in good-standing
  3. Maintain professional liability insurance.
  4. Submit application by appropriate deadline.

There’s also an in-person exam and a background check required by the head office. These requirements are interesting for a lot of reasons other than the popular argument that the NCAA is targeting NBA super agent Rich Paul (who doesn’t have a bachelor’s degree). In order to highlight my main takeaway, I have to show you the NCAA’s list of coaching requirements:

No, I didn’t forget a hyperlink. The NCAA doesn’t standardize coach hires like it does agent hires. Which only makes its focus on amateur athletics all the more questionable. Why the NCAA is putting more effort into regulating the professional pursuits of a select few college athletes while ignoring the needs of the true amateurs is beyond me.

Finally, let’s talk money. Not athlete money though. We are discussing the NCAA, after all, so even college athletes with agents will be prohibited from collecting payment while competing collegiately. Another requirement of NCAA agents is that they are have to pay a $250 application fee and a $1,250 certification fee. The fees are collected annually, which could mean big payouts for the head office, should a lot of NBA agents jump on board.

Monetarily, this could be a lucrative requirement: it’s not like the athletes have other options. For now, the minimum age for NBA draft eligibility is 19, and since there’s no real minor league for professional basketball, athletes with NBA potential really have no choice but to compete in college for a year or so before going pro. The NCAA has always functioned as a minor league for professional basketball players. Now it looks like the head office is finally owning it.

I’m all for college athletes having access to agents. I always have been, because it’s clear that there’s nothing truly amateurish about college sports. However, the monetary pursuits of college athletes is not the business of the head office. But of course, the NCAA is going to step in anyway, because everybody but the athletes gets to see the money they generate.

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