Inside look at NCAA enforcers who are spearheading AgentGate
Four-person group tasked with policing athletes, those who try to recruit them
Staff size, lack of jurisdiction limit what group can do without outside help
Skeptics doubt current system can cut it, but enforcers' network is growing
INDIANAPOLIS -- At first, Marcus Wilson thought it was really cool when a prominent sports agent came to speak at one of his law school classes. He had seen Jerry Maguire. He thought he might want to join the profession. So the former North Carolina football player approached the agent after class to ask if he might shadow him for a day.
"He actually asked me to be a runner for him," Wilson said. "He said, 'I'm trying to recruit a player at your school. You know him. Can you get me his telephone number?' "
Today, Wilson is in the agent business -- the business of busting them, that is. Following two years as a prosecutor, Wilson joined the NCAA's Agent, Gambling and Amateurism Activities division in 2008. The four-person group -- composed of director Rachel Newman-Baker, 33; associate director Angie Cretors, 33; and assistant directors Wilson, 29, and Chance Miller, 27 -- has spent much of its time flying to campuses around the country spearheading a slew of highly publicized investigations into players receiving extra benefits from agents and their recruiters.
"I had a flight attendant ask me the other day if I worked for the airline because she'd seen me on the flight so many times," Miller said.
The division's work to date has resulted in early-season suspensions for several high-profile players at North Carolina (among them defensive tackle Marvin Austin and receiver Greg Little), Georgia (receiver A.J. Green) and Alabama (defensive end Marcell Dareus), while South Carolina tight end Weslye Saunders, also under investigation, was dismissed from his team on Wednesday for undisclosed reasons. North Carolina associate head coach John Blake, believed to be a subject of the probe in Chapel Hill because of his reported relationship with NFL agent Gary Wichard, resigned last Monday. (Due to conflict of interest, Wilson has not conducted the UNC inquiry.)
On the heels of NCAA sanctions at USC, where former star Reggie Bush accepted benefits from a trio of sports marketers, AgentGate -- as the summer's confluence of headlines became known -- has elicited national debate over a long-dormant issue. Nick Saban famously called agents "pimps" at SEC Media Days and organized conference calls with NFL officials to discuss the issue. Various agents fired back in defense of their industry. Some lauded the NCAA for finally "getting tough" about agent rules. Others wondered why it took this long.
Newman-Baker, whose 10-year-old group operates within the NCAA's larger enforcement division, appreciates the increased awareness caused by the current cases, but laments the perception that the NCAA is only now becoming vigorous about agent-player activity.
"People on the outside ... don't know all that we do behind the scenes," Newman-Baker said. "They read about the one case that's in the paper, but they don't know Marcus has spent the past two years developing a relationship with Agent X so he can connect a whole bunch of dots, or Angie has spent every July in every basketball gym that all the major coaches go to.
"These guys work their tails off. They truly care about what they're doing. They put up with a lot. And they don't get paid a million-dollar salary to do what they do."
On a rare, recent afternoon when all four were in one place, the AGA staffers sat around a conference table at NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis and discussed the rewards and frustrations of their seemingly impracticable job -- one that involves policing thousands of college athletes and the untold agents, runners, handlers, sports marketers and financial advisors who try to recruit them. (By NCAA rule, they were not allowed to discuss specific athletes or investigations.)
Wilson, Cretors and Newman-Baker (Berea College basketball) are themselves former athletes. Miller and Wilson both have law degrees, while Cretors (Kansas) and Newman-Baker (Ohio State) previously worked in athletic departments.
"I'm very passionate about the principle of amateurism," said Cretors, an AGA staffer since 2003 who interviewed key witnesses in the USC/Bush case. "A lot of people in the general public laugh at it when you talk about the big sports, but I genuinely think [amateurism] is the bedrock of intercollegiate sports, which includes the agent component."
Newman-Baker, who joined the group as an intern in 2001, agrees: "All of us believe that most of the life lessons we learned [in college] came from our experience in athletics, and in all of our situations, it truly was the 'student athlete.' To kind of carry that over into what we do on a day-to-day basis, that background and that passion helps you."
Her team needs all the help it can get, because the AGA is extremely limited by both numbers and lack of jurisdiction. With no subpoena power over non-university personnel, leads and cases often hit dead ends. And while the NCAA enforcement model relies on schools to self-police, Newman-Baker said agent violations are rarely self-reported.
"Institutions want to do it," she said, "but I'm not sure they necessarily know what they're looking for."
By Newman-Baker's own admission, it has taken years of networking and cultivating sources within both the pro leagues and the agent community for the AGA to make headway. (It's believed that rival agents of the perpetrators were among the NCAA's main informants regarding the much-chronicled South Beach parties to which many of the recently suspended players were tied.)
"We're not going to completely eradicate [the problem]," Newman-Baker said. "I don't think that's anyone's expectation. More than anything, the message we want to send is, 'If you're doing it now, we are going to know about it, and we are going to follow through with it.' We want to establish something of a healthy fear out there, because quite frankly, I'm not sure that's always existed."
Others remain skeptical that current methods can make a real impact, however.