Under-the-radar 'freelancers' a main source of college corruption
Agents were once the NCAA's lone concern in curbing corruption in college sports
But now financial advisors and marketing reps, among others, are courting players
Freelancers are becoming a bigger problem than agents, and are harder to identify
Imagine you are an investigator in the NCAA's Agent, Gambling and Amateurism division and you stumble upon O-D Life, a company based in Myrtle Beach, S.C., that claims on its Web site to offer "exclusive client management" to athletes.
The company is operated by Matt Whittier and appears to be a one-stop concierge business for professional athletes. Among the services that O-D Life claims to offer: "Business Management & Development," "Wealth Management," "High-Profile Investments," "Public Relations & Marketing Services," "NFL Rules Advisement" and "Family & Substance Abuse Counseling."
Whittier is neither a lawyer, nor a registered financial advisor, nor a counselor. He does help operate Offense-Defense Sports, or O-D Sports, which runs youth football camps all over the country. That gives Whittier access to some of the nation's best talents at a young age, and he boasts that more than 350 O-D Sports alumni have played in the NFL.
There is one notable omission from O-D Life's long list of services: It doesn't represent athletes in contract negotiations. It offers to help clients vet agents -- to alert them to those known for "unscrupulous practices" -- but technically O-D Life is not a sports agency, and Whittier is not an agent. This is an important distinction, because it means that O-D Life is not subject to the rules and regulations of the NFL Players Association (NFLPA), which certifies player agents; and, depending on one's interpretation of a particular state's sports agent laws, O-D Life and Whittier may not be governed by those, either. The company operates in a vast gray area, free to contact and assist college athletes without restraint (and, if it serves its purpose, to heap rewards upon them).
Over the past five years, the NCAA and its member schools have seen a spike in the number of companies and individuals approaching star football players. Agents were once the lone concern, but now financial advisors and marketing representatives, former players and coaches, and even fitness trainers are courting young players. They share the same motivation as the agents -- to profit on a star athlete's future -- but not the notoriety or the infamy.
These individuals are the source of much of the corruption in college football today, and are at the center of NCAA investigations underway at schools such as North Carolina and Georgia, as well as probes at other schools that are expected to be made public in the coming weeks.
"The agents have always been a problem, and they still are, but the others, the guys we call the freelancers, may be a bigger issue now," said an NCAA source. "A lot of what we are seeing now -- the lavish parties players are attending, the trips -- it is coming from them."
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To understand who the freelancers are and how they operate, you first have to differentiate them from the agents and the many people who do their bidding.
Officially, there are 776 individuals certified by the NFLPA to represent players as agents. But the NFLPA also requires agents to register anyone in their network who might get a cut of a player's contract. If you broaden the definition of who is an agent to include those who help recruit players for a particular agency and stand to get a percentage, no matter how small, of a player's compensation, the pool of "agents" gets so deep that it can be hard to see the bottom.
Former players are common points of contact for agents at a school. "I will go to a kid who has just graduated and who didn't make it in the NFL and say, 'Hey, you want to get a little something for those four years you spent at that school?' " said one of the five agents interviewed by SI.com for this story.
The former player will stay near campus and use his contacts with his old teammates to set up meetings with the agent. It looks innocent enough -- a former player sticking around for an extra year to hang with his friends -- but he is usually paid for his troubles, typically a flat fee of a couple of thousand dollars or, in some cases, a percentage of the player's take.
Star players are used differently, agents say, and that is one of the points of interest in the NCAA's investigation at North Carolina.
In the summer of 2009, Tar Heels defensive linemen Marvin Austin and Cam Thomas traveled to Proactive Sports Performance in Thousand Oaks, Calif., a training facility less than two miles from agent Gary Wichard's offices, and where Wichard's clients routinely work out. Kentwan Balmer paid for the trip, Thomas told the Raleigh (N.C.) News & Observer. Balmer, who declined to say whether he did so in an interview with The Associated Press last month, is a former North Carolina player and a Wichard client, and thus the trip has come under NCAA scrutiny.
Wichard has claimed no wrongdoing by either he or Balmer, but one agent, speaking generally and not about Wichard and North Carolina in particular, told SI.com that agents will often ask a current client to pick up the tab for a potential client so as to get that player to a meeting. The agent then reimburses his current client.
The North Carolina case shined a light on another group of hopeful profiteers: college coaches. That college coaches recruit for agents is a systematic problem that runs deeper than most fans realize. As agents describe it, the most common occurrence is that a former NFL player goes into college coaching and then promotes his old agent to his players. If that agent lands one of those players, the college coach gets either a flat fee or a percentage of the player's rookie contract. It is one of the most effective ways to recruit, agents say, because players often see their position coaches as trusted advisors.
The NCAA has long been aware of this problem (at a recent NCAA regional rules seminar, one of the highlighted topics for discussion was "Agents compensating assistant and position coaches to recruit student-athletes"). The challenge is determining when a coach's words of wisdom cross over into solicitation.
John Blake, North Carolina's defensive line coach until he resigned on Sept. 5, once worked for Wichard's company, Pro Tect Management. At numerous stops during Blake's college coaching career -- from Oklahoma to Mississippi State to Nebraska to North Carolina -- his players have ultimately signed with Wichard. Yet only recently did this relationship raise eyebrows at the NCAA. (Wichard has denied that Blake helped him procure clients. Blake couldn't be reached for comment.)
Agents also cultivate a relationship with personal trainers who are popular with players, using them to help recruit.
"There are facilities that athletes want to work out at, those that are known for helping kids get drafted higher," an agent said. "So a player calls that facility to see about working out there and is told that all the spots are filled. But then he is told that [an agent] has purchased time at the facility, and that if he were to sign with [that agent] he could work out there."
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