The NCAA Doesn’t Speak for College Athletes

A new generation of African American agents wants basketball players to get a better deal. The college-sports organization moved to exclude new blood.

Darius Bazley
Represented by the superagent Rich Paul, the basketball prospect Darius Bazley, pictured here in 2018, skipped college basketball entirely. (Gregory Payan / AP)

Nicole Lynn is an attorney and a former Wall Street analyst. She is also an agent for Young Money APAA Sports, which is owned by the rapper Lil Wayne. In this year’s NFL draft, Lynn became the first black woman to represent a top-three pick. In January, she is scheduled to take the National Basketball Players Association’s certification exam for agents. On her Twitter feed in June, Lynn posted a video saying she was seeking her NBPA certification and referred to it as a divine calling. “When God puts something on your heart,” Lynn said, “when he tells you it’s time to transition, or it’s time to add something in your life, you don’t ask questions—you just make a move.”

Lately, Lynn has wondered whether that move is worth it. She isn’t questioning God, but she is questioning the NCAA, which recently revised its rules for agents seeking to represent college basketball players who aren’t sure of their NBA readiness, but want to test it. Per the latest NCAA requirement, Lynn needs to have been certified by the NBPA for three years before she can work with this category of college basketball players.

“I’m trying to help change these kids’ lives, and [the NCAA] is trying to make this harder,” Lynn told me.

The NCAA certification process for agents is supposedly designed to protect players from unscrupulous people who might take advantage of them. But recent rule changes have rightly come under fire, because they would limit players’ choice of representation and would make it even harder for a new generation of black agents, including Lynn, to gain a foothold in a difficult industry.

The NCAA is a billion-dollar business built on the free labor of college athletes. Its expression of concern for the well-being of its basketball players is downright hilarious.

Last week, the NCAA circulated a memo saying that agents need to have bachelor’s degrees to represent college basketball players who are on the verge of turning pro. This requirement was nicknamed the “Rich Paul rule,” in reference to the superagent Rich Paul, the founder of Klutch Sports Group and the head of sports at United Talent Agency. Paul, who was recently on the cover of Sports Illustrated, represents the NBA stars LeBron James, Ben Simmons, Draymond Green, and Anthony Davis. Paul does not have a college degree. He got an early break because of his friendship with James and has used that leverage wisely, becoming a major power broker in the NBA.

Protecting players isn’t the highest priority for the NCAA, which appears to care most about preserving its billion-dollar business. Paul poses a threat because he put together a deal for the Oklahoma City rookie Darius Bazley last year that allowed Bazley to skip college and instead get paid $1 million for a three-month internship with New Balance, the shoe company, while training for the NBA. The last thing the NCAA seems to want is for players to feel empowered—to come to the realization that the NCAA needs them more than the other way around.

In an opinion piece published in The Athletic yesterday, Paul wrote: “Unfair policy is introduced incrementally so people accept it because it only affects a small group. Then the unfair policy quietly evolves into institutional policy. I’m not sure what the technical term is for that because I didn’t finish college, but I know it when I see it.” You didn’t need a bachelor’s degree to see that these NCAA guidelines could disproportionately affect black players and black agents.

At least the degree requirement for agents—unlike most of the NCAA’s bad ideas—didn’t last. Soon after Paul’s op-ed appeared, the organization backpedaled, saying in a statement yesterday, “We have been made aware of several current agents who have appropriately represented former student-athletes in their professional quest and whom the National Basketball Players Association has granted waivers of its bachelor’s degree requirement. While specific individuals were not considered when developing our process, we respect the NBPA’s determination of qualification and have amended our certification criteria.”

In other words: That the rule just happened to exclude the highest-profile black agent—someone who’s blazed a trail for top players to bypass the NCAA—was totally a coincidence.

Paul’s client list is now so full of star players that he doesn’t really need to recruit the type of players who are affected by these NCAA guidelines. The rules will discourage agents like Nicole Lynn.

Though the NCAA got rid of the degree requirement, agents still have to complete an in-person NCAA qualification exam and maintain NPBA certification for three years before they can begin representing a player considering an NBA future. For an agent like Lynn, who started out working with football players and is branching out into basketball, that means she has to establish herself either by poaching other agents’ established clients or signing on a college megastar—a player like Zion Williamson, whose NBA potential was always obvious—who wouldn’t need to go through the same evaluation process as players who aren’t as sure of their draft status.

“I either have to hope that I get somebody like Zion or wait three years to qualify,” Lynn told me.

She also pointed out that a lot of black players feel more comfortable with a family member or friend representing them. That can be a reasonable option for those who aren’t drawing a lot of interest from the top agents, but the latest rules don’t allow it.

So, again, how exactly is the NCAA helping players? Discarding a discriminatory rule just means the NCAA is sensitive to public criticism. It doesn’t mean the NCAA suddenly understands what athletes need.