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Agents hurt collegiate athletics

This season, Luol Deng will not don a Blue Devil jersey.

Neither, for that matter, will Shaun Livingston. Dozens of other former student-athletes who gave up eligibility last summer to enter the NBA draft will also not get the chance to play in college.

The concept of early entry is not a bad one—after all, the option allows players to eliminate the risk of a college injury that could potentially cut an aspiring professional career short before its beginning. In addition, the current trend of drafting younger players in the NBA has generated certain situations in which players can even hurt their draft stocks by staying in school.

“I don’t think a lot of people understand what the NBA world is and what they may look at,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said after losing both Deng and Livingston to the draft last season. “The potential word is so big right now.”

Yet last season, a record 94 players declared themselves eligible for early entry, more than one-and-a-half times the number of draft slots. Although most withdrew, it is becoming increasingly evident that it is not just a select few who are eschewing college for a shot at NBA riches.

Consequently, more and more players are getting burned for trying. Everyone knows about the tremendous success of some previous early entry prospects—Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. For every Garnett or Anthony, however, there is a Lenny Cooke, an Ousmane Cisse or a Jonathan Hargett—players who bolted for the draft too early and wound up being left behind.

Once one of the top five high schoolers in the country, Cisse played exhibition games for Nike Team Elite last season, a far cry from NBA stardom. Lenny Cooke has traveled the world in search of a stable spot on an NBA roster. Nobody knows what happened to Hargett, once one of the Big East’s most promising freshmen.

“We, whether it is a high school or college coach, are restricted in our access to youngsters,” Krzyzewski said in June. “As a result of that restriction… you eventually start losing your brand with the people who eventually have to play for it. To me, that just makes sense. If they’re around the Knicks, the Lakers, the Celtics, the Bulls and they see these logos and people all the time and those people are actually allowed to talk to the AAU coaches, sit with the parents in the stands and do all those things whereas this college coach isn’t in the stands for the last two months.”

Perhaps it is this overglamorization of the NBA lifestyle that is at fault for the massive glut of early entry candidates to the draft. Even more likely culprits, however, are the sports agents that hound players, who entice them with overinflated draft projections and duffel bags full of cash.

“As a former coach, I witnessed time and again sport agents illegally using cash and gifts to recruit student-athletes,” Rep. Tom Osborne, R-Neb., a former Nebraska football coach, said in a press release. “This unethical behavior on behalf of the sports agents threatens the athletes’ eligibility and harms the integrity of college sports.”

Agents’ recruiting methods do more than harm the integrity of college sports—they are crippling them by removing their best players. The problem extends beyond college basketball—Maurice Clarett and Mike Williams will never again don college jerseys partially because of their attempts to enter the NFL draft early.

Because of these practices, Osborne spearheaded a movement to curtail the recruiting practices of sports agents, including the use of gifts to student-athletes or those around him and the inaccurate assessments of draft standings.

Although this is a step in the right direction the NCAA must take similar action. Agents still have unrestricted access to players and their families, a luxury that NCAA coaches do not have. Recently, the National Association of Basketball Coaches withdrew a proposal that would have granted five years of eligibility to college players and given coaches the greater access to recruits and players they would need to help counterbalance the enticements of professional agents. What the coaches must realize, however, is that the greatest recruiting war they are fighting might not be against each other, but against sports agents who still have much greater leeway in stealing away those same players.

The addition of an extra year of eligibility is a change that could drastically alter the face of collegiate sports and should require additional evaluation before it can be passed. Access to players, however, is an especially pressing need that should be reproposed and passed with great haste. Otherwise the NCAA will become further depleted by the professional ranks.

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