RALEIGH, N.C. — The complex schemes to get first dibs on teenage athletes with pro potential can resemble the drug trade.
There are sophisticated mazes of runners acting as go-betweens separating athletes from unscrupulous sports agents and financial advisers. Unraveling those ties to get at the corruption in college sports takes time, money and dedicated manpower — resources often in limited supply for authorities seeking to enforce sports agent laws that exist in at least 40 states.
These laws are designed to regulate agents’ conduct, deter them from providing college athletes with eligibility-jeopardizing improper benefits and punish violators. But state-level investigators and prosecutors face a dilemma of how these cases fit in when violent crimes and high-level felonies fill court schedules as clear priorities.
“If (lawmakers) decide something’s a high-level felony, that’s going to get more attention,” said Jim Woodall, a North Carolina district attorney whose office got a criminal conviction under the law this year. “And in these athlete agent cases, what we’re usually looking at is a Class I felony, which is the lowest we have in North Carolina.
“Even though it’s a felony, it’s still a very low-level felony and we can’t justify the resources and time it would take to prosecute those cases when we have other higher-priority cases that we have to deal with.”
The recent federal fraud and bribery scandal that rocked college basketball led to charges in September against 10 people, including four power-conference assistant coaches. Eight defendants face charges carrying a maximum 80 years in prison while two face up to 200 years, though they likely would face sentences measured in years rather than decades if convicted.
Arizona and Southern California, which had assistant coaches charged in the scandal, are ranked No. 3 and No. 10 respectively in The Associated Press preseason Top 25 poll that had Duke No. 1. Two other schools entangled in the federal probe, No. 13 Miami and No. 16 Louisville, are also ranked.
The charges against the assistants came amid an ongoing two-year investigation that included wiretaps and help from a cooperating insider .
The investigation showed how much work goes into untangling those murky connections. It also showed that authorities possess results-producing tools — such as search warrants and subpoenas — the NCAA just doesn’t have.
That explains why two major figures in college sports — Atlantic Coast Conference Commissioner John Swofford and Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey — recently told The Associated Press they support authorities pursuing these cases.
“There’s clearly a role for the states,” Sankey said.
Swofford would prefer a federal law instead of relying on states.
“It’s understandable that it’s difficult,” Swofford said. “It’s one thing to have the law. It’s another thing to really put it into service, so to speak, because of the lack of resources and manpower at the state level.”
In North Carolina, Woodall’s office is still prosecuting cases investigated by the Secretary of State’s office since 2010 into whether agents or runners broke state law by providing Tar Heels football players with improper benefits . The stiffest penalty so far came in a plea deal for former NFL agent Terry Watson, who received probation, a $5,000 fine and a suspended jail sentence.
It’s hard to find many examples nationally of criminal prosecution for violations of the Uniform Athlete Agents Act — Woodall can’t name another. A version of the UAAA exists in at least 40 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands. That’s according to the Uniform Law Commission (ULC), an organization that works to standardize state laws.
There have also been separate agent laws in California, Michigan and Ohio, according to the NCAA.
Woodall said North Carolina authorities have notified other states of relevant information from their investigation, but believes “most of them just don’t pursue these criminally.”
“There was at least one state when we contacted them,” Woodall said, “they said, ‘We do pursue these things’ but ... they had something like a $25,000 fine associated with it, and they just collected the fines.”
The Uniform Athlete Agents Act’s structure and penalties can vary from state to state. Created in 2000, it typically requires agents to register with states and prohibits them from luring collegiate athletes into contracts by providing them money, gifts or other items of value.
There have been efforts to create harsher penalties.
The ULC strengthened the act in 2015 by broadening the scope of who falls under its requirements and recommending a higher financial penalty. The changes include requiring schools to report violations to authorities, potentially leading to more prosecutions.
Work is underway to get state legislatures to adopt the updated act. It has been enacted in eight states and introduced in seven others this year, according to the ULC.
Dale G. Higer, who helped craft the revised act, hopes headlines from the federal case can help beef up the state laws. His goal: have the updated act adopted in more than half the states by 2020.
“I think part of it depends on how far the legislatures want to go in terms of penalties for violating the act,” said Higer, an attorney from Boise, Idaho. “To me, the more serious ones should be felonies where jail time would be the result of violating the act. But some legislatures may not want to go that far.”
Alabama and Tennessee adopted the updated act last year. Alabama deputy attorney general Brent Beal and Tennessee Secretary of State’s office spokesman Adam Ghassemi told the AP that officials sought to regulate more than simply agents.
“They broadened that,” Beal said, “which we hope will ... give it more teeth and to actually get people that have done things to ensnare student-athletes into something that they wouldn’t have knowingly gotten into.”
Ghassemi declined to comment on past or current cases, noting the Tennessee office is authorized to investigate and “assess appropriate civil penalties” outlined in the statute.
“We can affirm that we have exercised these powers under the Act,” Ghassemi said in an email. “The good news is that we have a large slate of athlete agents who are registered with our office, and we believe that the vast majority of them are acting in good faith and following the law.”
But there is enough unethical agent conduct that schools are desperate for help.
Athletics officials from 66 schools in 32 states — including numerous power-conference programs — and five NFL agents signed onto a 2013 memo pushing for stronger penalties and a broader reach in the UAAA’s update. The NCAA and former Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne also issued statements supporting it.
“I think law enforcement should be involved,” Notre Dame basketball coach Mike Brey said. “I mean, there’s no question about it. And of course law enforcement sure is involved now, aren’t they? ... Yeah, if there can be another layer there, there should be. Because it’s criminal activity, it really is.”
Whatever happens in courtrooms, Tennessee basketball coach Rick Barnes said it comes down to individuals because no law plugs every hole.
“I’ve also been in it long enough to know that if people want to get to somebody,” Barnes said, “they’re going to figure out a way to try to get to somebody.”
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