An interview with Josh Luchs about his new book, which outlines a plan for reforming the NCAA
Before a game between Kansas State and Syracuse University in this year's NCAA men's basketball tournament, Wildcats forward Jamar Samuels was suspended for accepting $200 from his old AAU coach to buy food—the latest in a seemingly endless procession of pay-for-play stories and scandals that prompted a growing number of observers to call for major reform.
Are big-time college sports broken?
If so, how can they be fixed?
The Atlantic recently spoke to former sports agent Josh Luchs, author of the new book Illegal Procedure: A Sports Agent Comes Clean on the Dirty Business of College Football about amateurism, scandal, paying players, and how to make the business of college athletics more equitable.
In your book Illegal Procedure, you liken amateurism in college sports to Prohibition. Why do you make that comparison, and in what ways are the two similar?
Neither one of them works effectively. Like Prohibition, the NCAA member institutions have created this underground marketplace without adequate and effective oversight. As long as you don't address the needs of the student athletes, you're going to continue to fuel the efforts of the bootleggers—in this case, the agents and runners—who are fulfilling those needs.
Start with financial needs. The National College Player's Association did this study that showed that some college athletes on full scholarship are living below the poverty line and that there is often a gap between the full cost of attendance and what scholarships provide. A natural first step is to bring them up to the full cost of attendance. NCAA president Mark Emerett recently advanced a $2,000 elective stipend.
To me, that's an acknowledgement that the problem exists. But when the shortfall is around $3,000 and they are offering $2,000, they are giving somebody on a 10-story burning building an eight-story ladder. And in terms of the larger gap between what college athletes receive and their actual market value, you don't need to look much farther than the Atlantic article by Taylor Branch that goes piece-by-piece through the sham of amateurism.
As long as the market for [college athletes] exists, you will have people who have a business model—under the table or otherwise - that tailors to that marketplace. And as long as that gap exists and the athletes have no other way to fill it, they're being set up for scandal and failure.
Both college sports officials and lawmakers claim that amateurism and its supporting legislation—such as state and federal laws that criminalize contact between agents and college athletes—are necessary to protect student-athletes. Alabama football coach Nick Saban famously compared agents to "pimps." Do you agree with those sentiments? Why or why not?
You mean protected from capitalism? One of the biggest problems here is that you have a socialist system [college sports] trying to operate in a capitalist environment. Publicly, the college will claim that it is about protecting the student-athletes from commercial enterprise. But I would say that the business of college football has evolved into the very commercial enterprise that they claim the athletes require protection from. I don't see how anybody can think that is going to work long-term.
The scandals over the last few years have had little to nothing to do with sports agents. It's been coaches and NCAA propaganda, pointing the finger at agents—at competent representation—and vilifying them. I think it's a way to divert attention from their own wrongdoing.
As far as agents being pimps, let me remind you: Nick Saban has an agent.
In your book, you say the proposed fixes for college sports fall into two basic categories: (a) better policing of the current system; (b) changing the current system. Which approach do you prefer, and why?
Change is necessary. The NCAA is at a crossroads. In a perfect world, I think the entire system should be reevaluated and reconstructed to better reflect the current economic reality. I'm not for any system that is oppressive. I believe this one is.
But in the real world, change usually comes incrementally. You have to crawl before you can walk. So it's probably more realistic to install a few tweaks to some of the rules that allow the rules to be more effectively enforced.
In that case, let's talk better policing, starting with the university compliance departments that are charged with monitoring the interactions between agents and college athletes. You describe compliance officers as well-meaning but ill-equipped and inadequate to the task at hand, and even compare them to Wall Street compliance departments during the financial meltdown. What's wrong with the current NCAA compliance system, and what should be done to make it more effective?
The first 10 years of my agent career, when I was violating all the rules, I never saw a compliance person. I knew they existed, but they were kind of like the Easter Bunny. A fairy tale. The system is based on self-monitoring. That is proven to be ineffective. The compliance people are handcuffed by working directly for the institutions that are writing their paychecks. To think they are going to storm into the office of the highest-paid state officials—the coaches—and demand things is unrealistic at best.
Consider a player wearing a big, thick gold chain. Say the compliance person sees this, knows the player comes from a humble background. If they look too closely into where it came from and that leads to investigations and NCAA sanctions, you're going to have a press conference where the head coach is front and center talking about how great the compliance officer is. Then, when the final decision is handed down, that same coach is going to have another press conference saying that they fixed the problem and got rid of the old compliance people. They got new ones.
I've had the opportunity to meet with compliance people across the country. I have a new appreciation for how hard their job is. They are set up for failure. They are scapegoats. They are punished for doing their jobs, damned if they do and damned if they don't. For a lot of them, their offices are literally in the bowels of the athletic department. They don't even have a view of the field or locker room areas. How are they supposed to monitor things if they are fenced off and kept at arm's length form the athletes themselves?
I'm in favor of a G-men, Untouchables approach, where the compliance officers are basically autonomous and empowered to do what they need to do. Let the checks come from the NCAA, not from the universities. Why would schools investigate themselves?
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In your book, you describe a number of ways clever agents can get around current restrictions—including social networking "ghosting," which involves creating fake electronic personas, typically of attractive young women—to contact and learn more about the college athletes they are trying to recruit. In order to effectively police the current college sports system, how invasive and draconian would these "G-men" university compliance departments have to be?