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Bill Takes On Unscrupulous Sports Agents

Legislation passed by the House seeks to stop the flow of disinformation, gifts and false promises of professional success to college athletes.

June 05, 2003|Justin Gest | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Responding to accusations of bribery, blackmail and deception by sports agents on college campuses nationwide, the House approved by voice vote Wednesday a bill that would punish those who use unscrupulous recruitment tactics to lure student-athletes into binding professional contracts.

The Sports Agent Responsibility and Trust Act would prohibit agents from misleading student-athletes with untrue information, providing them with anything of value and making false promises of success in professional sports.

The National Collegiate Athletic Assn. can punish athletes or schools that violate recruitment regulations by suspending them from intercollegiate competition. Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Texas), a bill co-sponsor, says it "levels the playing field" by making agents who violate the rules subject to consequences as well. The bill allows state attorneys general to charge violators in federal court with engaging in unfair or deceptive practices under the Federal Trade Commission Act.

The bill also requires that every contract be reported to the signer's university, warning the signer of its binding status and the risk of ineligibility for college athletics. And it allows the signer to back out within 14 days of signing.

The legislation now goes to the Senate.

According to Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), the bill's primary sponsor, the NCAA was initially unwilling to consider federal intervention, preferring to tackle the problem at the state level. However, after state legislatures were slow to act, it has since joined numerous coaching associations and sports leagues in support. Among the bill's co-sponsors is Rep. Tom Osborne (R-Neb.), a former football coach at the University of Nebraska.

Osborne, who coached the Cornhuskers to three national championships before his election to the House in 2000, said that about 30 of his players were approached by agents each season. "Unscrupulous agents will offer cars, clothes, cash, sometimes drugs just to sign a contract," said Osborne. "One time or another, I saw these things happen to my players."

Agent Scott Boras, who represents such baseball stars as Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez and who testified May 15 in support of the legislation, said while the bill is a step forward, he remains dissatisfied.

"I am not happy with a bill that does not protect the student-athlete," said Boras, whose agency is based in Irvine. "The greatest athletes in America should have the right to go to school, the right to be represented, and the right to choose.

"Universities should scrutinize what professional teams do on their campuses," Boras added. "And the person they want to scrutinize is the agent."

The legislation is modeled on the Uniform Athletic Agents Act, which has already been passed by 20 states. The California Legislature approved it in August, but Gov. Gray Davis vetoed it a month later because of a dispute over which state agency would implement the law.

Agent Lonnie Cooper, whose Atlanta-based Career Sports Management represents pitcher John Smoltz and running back Priest Holmes, said that the law is important because it creates a federal standard. "This breeds consistency nationwide, not just state to state," Cooper said. "It's a more formal way of policing."

And, Gordon said, the potential enforcement of the bill will be an effective deterrent. "People still try to rob banks," he said, "but not as many when you have laws against it."

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