The NCAA says it did not have Lebron James’s agent Rich Paul in mind when it announced its controversial new rule last week, requiring agents to have bachelor’s degrees to advise elite basketball prospects on whether to enter the NBA Draft.
But to James, the new agent certification rule was a direct swipe at the empire his friend and agent, who never completed college, built. Last year, standout forward Darius Bazley decided to skip college and take a $1 million-dollar-a-year internship at New Balance. It was negotiated by Paul.
The narrative from many commentators on social media is that because Paul can lure away the NCAA's stars and undermine its lucrative TV contracts, Paul is a threat to the NCAA establishment. Therefore, the original NCAA rule, requiring only agents with bachelor’s to counsel student-athletes was designed to keep Paul away. So James unleashed the hashtag #RichPaulRule.
Soon the hashtag made headlines as stars like Chris Paul and Kevin Hart lambasted the NCAA degree requirement. Some called it racist, others said it discriminated against underprivileged children of color who dream of becoming NBA agents, but don’t have the resources or opportunities to obtain a college degree.
Paul wrote a powerful Op-Ed for The Athletic and just hours later, the NCAA rolled back its controversial requirement. Now agents can become certified without a bachelor’s degree if the NBPA gives them a discretionary waiver. The union sometimes accepts negotiating experience in lieu of a degree. That’s how Paul got certified.
But embedded in Paul’s Op-Ed was an illuminating question. He asked, "Does anyone really believe a four-year degree is what separates an ethical person from a con artist?”
There are hundreds of NBPA-certified agents, but only a few NBA stars. The business is so cut-throat that the dirty and oft times under-the-radar civil lawsuits between competing agents demonstrate Paul’s point: having your degree doesn’t mean you play by the rules.
In fact, when the FBI probed the underbelly of the college basketball world it discovered the unsavory agents, runners, coaches, financial advisors, all clawing and clamoring for the next Lebron. On wire taps they discussed illicit gifts, money, endorsement deals and promises to recruits.
While runner Christian Dawkins, who was indicted on bribery and fraud charges, did not have his college degree, the agent he worked for, Andy Miller of ASM Sports, did attend college.
Miller’s office was later raided by the FBI. Miller, one of basketball’s most prominent agents at the time, negotiated over $1 billion in contracts and endorsement deals according to Forbes, and voluntarily relinquished his NBPA certification last year. The union clearly wasn't effectively policing his activities.
Over the years, several lesser-known lawsuits accused Miller of all sorts of improper conduct, sometimes bordering on bizarre. In 2009, Miller was accused by competing agent Thomas Rogers of using a “disguise (wig and sunglasses)“ to board a bus and convince a young Monta Ellis to sign with him, in violation of state law. Rogers said Miller also bought the future Golden State Warrior a Cadillac. Miller denied it and the case was later dismissed for procedural reasons. In separate suits, Miller was accused of civil conspiracies to allegedly solicit and sign clients away from other agencies, including Kevin Garnett, Chauncey Billups, K.J. McDaniels and Jarell Martin.
Then there’s Wesley Spears, a Hartford lawyer who was charged with extortion and promoting prostitution after former Knicks star Marcus Camby said Spears offered him prostitutes, jewelry and other gifts to get Camby to make him his agent in the mid 90s before he entered the Draft. When Camby signed with someone else, he says Spears tried to blackmail him with naked pictures. The feud ended with a young Camby tearfully admitting to taking illegal gifts, UMass forfeiting its NCAA tournament victories and Spears getting probation.
And how about mega agent Aaron Mintz, who used to be a young runner-type, but now represents Paul George and D’Angelo Russell? It wasn’t long ago he was accusing his former boss Mark Bartelstein (Kyle Lowry’s agent) of violating federal law by hacking his computer, threatening him and defaming him for leaving the agency. All of which Bartelstein denied. A jury vindicated Bartelstein but found that his agency's general counsel and former NBA agent Brad Ames hacked Mintz's email.
Years later, Brad Ames was indicted on federal child pornography charges and accused of paying boys to be video taped engaging in sex acts. Ames voluntarily relinquished his NBPA certification.
So the question is, now that the FBI got its convictions, how will the NCAA police the hundreds of agents that are NBPA-certified? Degrees and union certification didn't seem to make those agents ethical.
The point of the NCAA’s new regulatory scheme is to help clean up college basketball from corruption. But the updated “Rich Paul Rule” only requires agents be certified by the union for three years, pass a test and carry professional liability insurance. This may eliminate some runners on scene but how exactly will it clean up the sport from the corruption that has lasted decades? The corruption fueled by agents vying for future Lebrons.
There are some positive changes from the NCAA commission, led by Condoleeza Rice, which included former NBA stars Grant Hill and David Robinson, among others. Now players can reenter college if not drafted, the NBA is considering ending one and done, and agents are subject to union disciplinary procedures so players can get affordable relief if wronged.
But unlike doctors, lawyers, or other professionals, agents are not legally governed by a uniform structure. Dueling unions can’t seem to agree on what makes an agent qualified. For example, the NFLPA requires a masters or law degree. In contrast, the NHLPA, MLBPA and now NCAA do not even require an undergraduate degree. The NBPA does, but only sometimes.
State and Federal Laws are more disjointed. At the state-level, there’s the Uniform Athlete Agent Act, which has been adopted by the majority of states but mainly acts as a registration requirement. The feds created the Sports Agent Responsibility and Trust Act but it lacks enforcement power. Plus, fines and penalties are un-intimidating, often requiring agents to pony up thousands of dollars for violations that are netting them tens of thousands. Slaps on the wrist that seem to make the crime worth the fine. Agency is still the Wild Wild West and all of these certification programs just rack up fees for unions.
The NCAA and unions should realize that agents lack oversight and education and act. The education doesn’t have to come in the form of a bachelor’s degree; but agents should be required to do more than take an open book exam about the CBA at NBPA headquarters. The NCAA's new exam should cover all of its rules in detail (and not be open book).
The very definition of agency is: one person having legal authority to act for another. Negotiating contracts should require an understanding of what those contracts mean so the agent can inform and advocate for clients. And agents and players should be educated on the civil and criminal laws that govern their professions so they can avoid acting in ways that can get them sued, prosecuted or surveilled. In fact, having agents enroll in and pass a relevant regulatory law class would be prudent.
Rich Paul even suggested the organization institute a one-year mentorship program. On the heels of the NCAA bowing to Paul and Lebron's social media campaign pressure, perhaps they can all work together to create a structure that helps ensure young kids with big dreams have the opportunity and the practical education, so they turn into ethical agents and not con artists. After all, it is Paul's rule now.
Amy Dash is a legal analyst for CBS Sports Radio, WFAN & Fox Sports Radio. Follow her at @amydashtv.