This week's Sports Illustrated has a chilling expose on a cancer that threatens the sanctity of student athletics, and perhaps even the very moral fibre of society at large. In an article entitled "Confessions of an Agent," former NFL agent Josh Luchs explains how he paid over 30 college players over a period of ten years in violation of NCAA policies. This wasn't only typical, the article says. It also served a mutually beneficial purpose: Money could help an agent add a potentially-lucrative athlete to his slate of clients. For the athlete, money could do what money normally does, i.e. feed you or save your mother from eviction. For shame!
Look, the argument for paying people to play what's just a mindbogglingly dangerous yet richly entertaining and highly profitable sport is simply too straightforward to make here (and it's being made elsewhere anyway). Just a couple observations:
Firstly, how much less sleazy are Luchs' "dirty" years compared to his supposedly clean ones? When he was paying college players, Luchs was behaving as all investors do, sinking money into a commodity which may or may not be profitable, and allocating scarce resources in the interest of some maximal future return. This is more or less how a lot of labor markets work: Every year on college campuses across America, banks and consulting firms pour millions of dollars into recruiting potential employees who may or may not choose to work for them, taking them out for expensive dinners and dangling huge signing bonuses in front of them. Such enticements are only illegal in college sports, since the NCAA is deeply afraid of a labor market driven by rational economic decision-making.
This leads to a classic unintended consequence, created both by the NCAA and state governments willing to sue or prosecute allegedly unscrupulous sports agents. Paying prospective clients is discouraged and even illegal. The solution: Use respected ESPN draft analyst and probable shut-in Mel Kiper, Jr. to mess with their heads!:
Gary also used his contacts in the media to help him recruit. In 2000, before a meeting with Stanford defensive lineman Willie Howard, Gary arranged for ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper to call. Gary and I were talking to Willie in Gary's office when Gary's phone rang, and he put it on speakerphone.
"Viper, how are you?" Gary said. That's what he called Mel, Viper or Vipe. "Viper, I'm sitting here with the best defensive lineman in college football. Do you know who that is?"
"You must be with Willie Howard," Mel said.
Gary used Mel like that all the time. In the agent business, people know Gary and Mel are close, and some people suspect that Mel ranks players more favorably if they are Gary's clients.
See, the legal way of getting at broke and impressionable student athletes is arguably sleazier than various illegal alternatives. Money doesn't lie, but Mel Kiper, Jr. certainly can.
Second, it seems that five of the 30 players mentioned in this article are dead. Is this some kind of crazy statistical fluke? Maybe, but consider the story of first-round draft pick Chris Mims, who played eight seasons in the NFL:
On October 15, 2008, Mims was found dead in his Los Angeles apartment by police officers conducting a welfare check. Cause of death was an enlarged heart. Mims was 456 pounds at the time of his death.
Football can have tragic consequences for the people who play it. It doesn't seem unreasonable to allow college kids to get paid for playing it well. And nobody—agent or player—should be stigmatized or punished for behaving like employers, employees, and investors do in virtually every other industry.