If many agents fail in their duties, the reasons are only too clear: Their profession has no entrance exams, no firm ethical canons, no regulatory body—all in all, virtually no accountability. It's time to change that. To start with, it would help if at least one college sued an agent for signing and giving money to an undergraduate. The complaint could be that he interfered with the college's contract with the athlete. Or—this is almost the opposite—the NCAA could pitch in by throwing out its rules barring an undergraduate from committing to an agent, thus bringing athlete-agent dealings more into the open.
Another idea worth considering is to have colleges pay their athletes a modest stipend so they won't be so tempted to accept under-the-table money from boosters or agents. Under the current, overly restrictive NCAA rules, full-scholarship players are in effect prohibited from having part-time jobs. "That's why some of these guys are so vulnerable to the agent who offers them a quick buck," says agent Evan Appel.
And universities need to intensify their efforts to educate athletes about dealing with agents. NCAA legislation passed in January 1984 allows any school to establish a panel to counsel athletes on professional athletic careers. To date, some 70 Division I schools have committees, but most merely offer tips on distinguishing good agents from bad. "We tell every athlete to get the agent's business card and three references," says Oval Jaynes, Colorado State's athletic director. "That's as far as we go."
Under Duke's exemplary program, prospective agents undergo a thorough screening by a panel made up of law school professors and university lawyers.
"Do you know how much you'd have to pay for a service like this?" asks Jay Bilas, the former Duke basketball star who was looking for an agent with pro basketball contacts in Europe. "I can't tell you how confident I felt making my final decision." Bilas wound up signing with agent Larry Fleisher, who is also the general counsel of the National Basketball Players Association, and he now plays for an Italian pro team.
Legislative relief is another option. So far five states—California, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Alabama and Texas—have enacted laws seeking to regulate sports agents, but these have not gone far enough. California's law exempts lawyers—many of whom work as agents. For that and other reasons, only 35 of the estimated 350 agents doing business in the state have registered. Given the interstate movement of athletes and teams, federal legislation governing agents' practices might be more effective than a patchwork of state laws. But nobody foresees action by Washington anytime soon. Oregon senator Bob Packwood introduced a Professional Sports Agency bill in 1985, but that measure, which would have established professional standards for the industry, has gone nowhere.
The NBA and NFL players' associations already regulate agents' fees for services rendered to veteran players, but the NFLPA has no jurisdiction over the most troublesome group of agents, those who handle rookies. The NFLPA wants to change that in its current collective bargaining negotiations. Here's hoping it succeeds. NFL management has instead proposed a strict wage scale that would deal with agents by reducing the need for them.
Athletes themselves bear the greatest responsibility in their dealings with agents. Several athletes who admitted signing as undergraduates with agent Norby Walters attended schools that have career-counseling panels. For example, Tony Woods, the former Pitt defensive end who signed with Walters as a junior, went to at least two career-counseling sessions at his school, according to Dean Billick, Pitt's associate athletic director.
"Tony sat very attentively," Billick recalls. "He knew the difference between right and wrong."
Athletes should recruit agents, not the other way around. And collegians should look askance at any agent who offers them money to sign. An agent who circumvents NCAA rules is one who is likely to pull fast ones in dealing with his client. As attorney-author Robert Ruxin noted in An Athlete's Guide to Agents, "Any athlete before hiring an agent should ask about the agent's qualifications, ethics, philosophy of representation, approach to dealing with club owners, method of calculating and collecting his fees, attitude toward renegotiation...." After an agent is hired, says Ruxin, the athlete must "monitor the agent's performance, participate in making crucial decisions, and make sure the agent does not subordinate the player's interests to those of any other client."
Other tips offered by the experts:
1) Don't sign long-term contracts with agents. Make sure you're free to break off the arrangement at any time. (The baseball players' union will limit player-agent contracts to one year, beginning in 1988.)
2) Compare fees. Don't be afraid to bargain with an agent to lower his fees.
3) Pay only for needed services. Matt Merola, a New York agent who specializes in endorsements, says, "I don't think every athlete needs my kind of services. Certainly not right away." Peter Johnson, the head of IMG's team-sports division, maintains, "A fifth-rounder in football or a third-rounder in basketball needs one thing: someone to negotiate his contract. He doesn't need financial management."
4) Consider spreading your business around. Negotiating contracts and handling investments involve different skills. Bert Padell, business manager for Madonna and other entertainers, says the two functions should be handled separately—"like church and state." The big sports operators—IMG, ProServ and Advantage International—can deliver both ways because each provides many specialists under one roof.
5) Be certain the agent has time for you. Agents overextend themselves not only by wearing too many hats but also by taking on too many clients.
6) Make an agent who expects a percentage of your contract explain why he won't agree to be paid by the hour, if that's your preference. Barry Rona, the executive director of the major league baseball player relations committee, says, "I would hire a lawyer from a quality firm, and I'd pay him by the hour. With an accountant or an investment adviser I'd do the same."
7) Make the agent divulge and defend conflicts of interest. Does he represent your teammates or members of other teams who play your position? Does he do business with management? Is he management himself—for example, does he put on tournaments?
8) Don't sign over power of attorney to an agent. Make him go over each proposition with you.
9) Be wary of any agent who promises to make a killing for you in investments. "If it's a rush-rush, chop-chop thing, don't do it," says Jim Riskas, president of Suttcor, an Orange County real estate and financial services company that invests on behalf of many major leaguers. "Always adopt the philosophy that you would rather miss the boat than get on a boat that sinks."
10) Find an agent who has the vision and talent to help you plan for your postplaying days as well as your current needs.
Reputable agents—yes, there are some—have nothing to fear from tighter scrutiny of their profession. In fact, they would welcome it.