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Fathers V. Agents

At the risk of turning this into a basketball blog, I wanted to follow up on that web story I wrote last week about how having an active, involved father might actually be an obstacle to becoming a big-time basketball star. On a related note, the basketball writer Adam Zagoria has a really interesting article about the ever increasing role sports agents are playing in the college recruiting process:

The coach we spoke to added: “I don’t think this is happening with most Division 1 recruits. I don’t think it’s happening with people who are underneath the elite level, but I think with a truly elite recruit who is probably going to end up in the NBA, they definitely have agents talking to them at an early age and advising them. Then a college coach has to talk with anyone who’s advising a player. They’re part of the process, and it’s a natural evolution.”

The coach added: “They gain influence [with the recruit]. Once they gain influence, they have to be spoken to.”

Why does this type of thing go on?

“I think it’s part of the one-and-done rule,” the first coach said. “Kids that are highly likely to be NBA players clearly stand out. Agents understand this. I think they often recruit them earlier than college coaches do, and because they don’t necessarily have restricted access they can get close relationships very early on.

“Also clearly the less fortunate a family is, the more receptive they probably would be to someone who wants to help them.”

How exactly does it work?

“It’s more [the agent saying], ‘You’re going to sign with me [when you go pro]. Let me get you through the next year because I know your family’s having a hard time and I’ll help advise you on choosing the right school,” the coach said.

This is the sort of thing I was alluding to in my web article about just how screwed-up big-time college basketball is getting. Here's the problem with having these agents playing a greater roll. First and foremost, their interest in the player is entirely financial, and while that interest can benefit the player in certain ways--it's in the agent's interest, after all, for the player to succeed and get to the NBA, since that's the only way the agent will get paid--it can work against the player, as well. For instance, the agent is presumably only going to advise the player to go to a college where he knows the coach will run off other agents who want to represent the player when he turns pro. So right there, there's a conflict. If a player might fit in and be happy at one school, but the agent is concerned that coach won't protect his investment for him, the agent isn't going to "advise" the kid to go there. And if a coach wants a player badly enough, he's going to promise to protect the agent's investment by running off other agents, even if the coach thinks some of those other agents might ultimately do a better job for the player once he gets to the pros. The player's interests, in other words, take a backseat to everyone else's.

What's more, these agents are often courting players who are severely economically disadvantaged--which gives the agents tremendous leverage. Maybe some of these agents really do nothing more than offer their advice, but it's not hard to imagine a scenario in which these agents win the loyalty of the player and his family by giving them money, as well. Put aside for a moment the matter that this sort of arrangement is against the rules. What bothers me is that these agents probably don't have to give the player and his family much money now in order to secure a huge payday for themselves down the road. The rules, in other words, actually stack the deck in favor of the agent--who, theoretically, isn't even supposed to have a role.

The worst thing about all of this, though, is that it may ultimately be in the players' best interest to have an agent manage his recruitment (rather than, say, his dad). Even with all of these inequities and conflicts of interest, you might need a savvy and sophisticated agent to navigate what has become an increasingly complicated (and corrupt) process--never mind the fact that the agent is only helping you because he views you as a payday.

--Jason Zengerle