Benner/Sports and Opinion and College Sports and Sports Business

BENNER: Misperceptions swirl around college agent issue

October 30, 2010

A week after Sports Illustrated made a cover boy of the sleazy agent Josh Luchs, who admitted doling out illegal cash payments to less than a dozen college athletes over a period of several years, the magazine ran a follow-up defense of its story that included the headline, “He’s been pilloried in places, but Luchs has raised awareness of how many collegians accept money.”

Let’s consider that phrase for a moment: how many collegians accept money.

Now it is true, because of SI’s story, high-profile cases involving the likes of now-deposed Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush and current NCAA investigations into alleged agent activity at several football programs (North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia), one might get the impression that agents are running amok on campuses across the land, unloading bags full of money to anyone wearing a jock strap.

That impression would be wrong.

How many collegians accept money? Placed in the context of all who compete in Division I football and men’s basketball—that number is approximately 17,000—and the tiny number of those who eventually come to have professional potential and thus attract the attention of agents, the percentage could not possibly rise above the low single digits, if that.

Let’s take it a step further: How many collegians among the 400,000 student-athletes in all three NCAA divisions accept money? Even if the number is, say, 200, that would equate to five one-thousandths of a percentage point.

Now there’s context that is rarely offered to the public, primarily because it doesn’t make for hot copy or attention-grabbing headlines.

That said, this agent business is a serious issue. This month, in fact, a panel that includes Indianapolis Colts President Bill Polian and other NFL executives, as well as college representatives, was convened to look into the agent issue and propose solutions and penalties.

Certainly, the agents must police themselves. Furthermore, if not the federal government, then the states must pass laws that have teeth to punish the leeches for attaching to their prey. For sure, head coaches must make it their business to know what’s going on. And, yes, student-athletes who knowingly are on the take should pay the appropriate price.

One solution is guaranteed not to work: the notion of paying student-athletes a stipend over and above their scholarships. To the agent determined to offer money—and to the athlete open to accepting it—that will only raise the ante. A $200-a-month stipend will not deter the unscrupulous agent offering $400.

Here’s something else the public is generally not aware of: Student-athletes facing genuine financial hardships don’t have to take money from agents.

Instead, they can get it from the NCAA or the federal government.

Let’s take the latter first. College students—yes, including athletes—can apply for as much as $5,500 a year based on need (according to family incomes) via federal Pell Grants. Better still, these Pell Grants do not require repayment. And they can be awarded over and above a full athletic scholarship.

Then there are the NCAA’s student-athlete special assistance/opportunity funds. The NCAA has set aside $53 million annually to help qualified student-athletes with expenses such as clothes, shoes, school supplies, medical and dental needs, and emergency travel.

Furthermore, in many cases, student-athletes on full rides are provided allowances for housing and meals that can easily exceed what they actually pay for such, especially in their upperclassmen years as they move off campus. Does that mean the student-athletes give the extra money back? Uh, no. It goes into their pockets.

So the point is this: Those who want to convince the public that student-athletes—in particular, football and men’s basketball players—are forced to live a life of poverty or have no remedies for their financial situations are, at best, misinformed.

How many collegians accept money? The real answer is a scant few. The overwhelming majority of the rest understand and appreciate the value of the free or partially funded college education their athletic skills afford them, even if that won’t make the cover of Sports Illustrated.•

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Benner is senior associate commission for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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