The independent news organization of Duke University

PREPPING FOR THE PROS

Former Blue Devil Luol Deng sat in the Theater at Madison Square Garden June 24, 2004 wearing a glamorous suit and sporting a diamond-studded watch, waiting for NBA commissioner David Stern to announce his name. As a 19-year old, he had already cashed in some of his forthcoming basketball fortune, but his decision to turn pro and hire an agent was one to which he had given serious thought.

Although his Cameron Indoor Stadium playing days were behind him, Deng received a lot of guidance and mentoring for that decision from Duke’s Student-Athlete Counseling Committee, which helped prepare him to interview potential agents and understand what life would be like with millions of dollars at his disposal.

“What we’re doing is helping Duke student-athletes to understand what they’re facing, to understand the critical questions and the way in which you structure your relations and conduct yourself,” said Paul Haagen, a law professor and the chair of the committee. “What we’re hoping to do is to help them in the first stage of becoming sort of full adults.”

Since its reconstitution in 1990, the president-appointed committee has consisted of Haagen, Chris Kennedy—senior associate athletic director—and usually a rotating professor from the Fuqua School of Business. Its primary goal is to serve as a resource, offer advice and prepare members of any of Duke’s athletic teams who are considering a career in professional sports, to hire legal representation.

The committee has assisted former men’s and women’s basketball players, football players, soccer players and women’s golfers—a list which includes NBA players like Grant Hill, Shane Battier and Jay Williams.

“[The committee helps them in] figuring out how to approach a world in which they will suddenly become, in some cases, hard workers in a career that is transitional, where they won’t make a lot of money,” Haagen said. “In other cases...they will become extraordinarily wealthy and need to figure out how to respond to that well in a mature and responsible way, so they optimize their life opportunities.”

Duke’s committee has served as a model for other universities nationwide. Although most schools provide some service to their student-athletes, it often entails simply providing a database of registered agents, Haagen said. But at Duke, he added, committee members make a greater effort to counsel the athletes, while leaving all the decisions up to the student-athletes and their families.

“Most other schools don’t do it at all. There is either no assistance or it’s something that’s done by the coaches,” Haagen said. “The places that do have committees tend not to be as full-service, to provide as much assistance.”

 

The agent selection process

Generally Kennedy informs athletes early in their college careers that the committee’s services are available to them if they choose to seek them out. Haagen said some players like Battier came to see him as many as 20 times, and others made appointments and never showed up.

For those who request help, the committee will sit down with the student-athletes, their parents, and anyone else they want to be involved with the process. Haagen educates them about how the agent selection process works, explains some of the contractual details and answers questions.

“What I ideally like to do is to prepare the student-athlete to run the agent selection meetings themselves,” Haagen said. “Basically training the person to interview, talking about the kinds of questions that might be relevant, and making whoever it is claiming to want to represent them respond to the Duke student.”

The overall involvement of the committee in the selection process is up to the student-athlete though. Haagen and Kennedy are happy to sit in on agent interviews and offer feedback, but they do not and will not make decisions for the players.

“The committee gives the player the chance to see the prospective agent in what I call a ‘difficult situation,’” said Janet Hill, the mother of former Blue Devil standout Grant Hill, who utilized the committee’s services. “They’re not just surrounded by a 20-year old athlete, but they’ve got bona fide adults in the room. They’re going to ask a different question than a college graduate or undergraduate. It really puts [the agents] to the test.”

Most of the committee’s work pertains to members of the men’s basketball team, many of whom are lured by ruthless agents from the moment they step onto campus, if not before.

In 1996, an NCAA study revealed 90 percent of collegiate athletes who were expected to be drafted in the first round of their respective professional leagues had had some illegal contact with agents or their runners—people hired by agents to influence players and their families.

“The whole business of agent representation is a large, unregulated industry,” Janet Hill said. “You’ve got some agents that recruit like the devil, but then they don’t do anything, and the reason is because they sign a guaranteed contract.”

But Duke players are not immune to this type of behavior from agents. Grant Hill had to change his unlisted telephone number three times during his senior year because he was hounded by potential representatives, Kennedy said. Similarly, Kennedy had heard a friend of Williams had been offered $50,000 by an agent to try to convince the former Player of the Year to sign with him.

“There are all these agents or agencies that are looking for profit and aren’t very scrupulous about how they can get to somebody’s money,” Kennedy said. “Agents may present themselves as your buddies, or confidants, or your friends, but they wouldn’t be interested with you if there weren’t profit involved.”

As a result, part of the committee’s job is to monitor student-athletes, both to protect the interest of the players and to prevent the institution from any NCAA violations.

Duke requires all agents to register and fill out questionnaires before allowing them to speak to players on campus. Because the committee has existed in some form since 1986, a large database of agent information has been generated, and Kennedy continually updates it with feedback from players and their families. Some agents have been restricted from campus because of their past histories.

 

Times are changing

Planning for when to begin to counsel athletes on the selection process has become more difficult because of the increasing number of players who leave early for the NBA. Since 1999, six Blue Devils have left school for the NBA draft before graduating, not including Shavlik Randolph, who declared himself eligible for this year’s draft but is expected to return to Duke.

“We were successful for a long time in getting them to use the committee because they could see that it was effective in the days before there was this cacophony of other voices telling them different stuff than we might be telling them,” Kennedy said. “It’s evolved more and more recently into getting them to understand our perspective, what an agent can and can’t do, and then they tend to go off with their family and other people.”

When players are weighing their options between leaving for the pros and staying at college, much of the information they receive from outside sources is not necessarily true. Haagen said he has developed a number of NBA contacts whom he trusts and can generally predict the range in which a player is expected to be selected. His information, however, often conflicts with what players have heard.

“When you’re dealing with contradictory claims, the kid wants to believe he’s going to go in the top eight,” Kennedy said. “And to feel that you’re close to that revenue, and that glamour and that Rolex, you’re naturally inclined to want to hear the best. That puts us in a tough situation.”

The fact that the committee is comprised of professionals outside the basketball program—a feature not replicated by many other advisory committees around the country—adds credibility to Haagen’s advice.

“I think there is an increased level of family mistrust that we might be the same thing as the basketball team, and that we might give advice that’s the same as what’s in the best interest of Duke basketball,” Haagen said of the changes in perception toward the committee. But the coaching staff views the committee as “a terrifically valuable thing.”

Assistant men’s basketball coach Johnny Dawkins, who was a member of the first class to utilize the original committee at Duke, believes his players recognize the difference between Haagen’s advice and what agents might be telling their friends and families.

“The reason why the players who have used it have really enjoyed it is because it is non-biased.” Dawkins said. “They may be hearing differing opinions, but they know the people here had their best interest [at heart].”

Duke first introduced a student-athlete counseling committee in the early 1980s and at the time, it was advising primarily football players. But a controversy over screening the players’ incoming mail from agents led to the resignation of its members, which included school chancellors, the vice president, and high-ranking officials in the law school.

When it was reconstituted, the school asked the recently-hired Haagen to become involved because he was teaching contracts at the law school, had a little bit of experience representing athletes and had no direct connection with the athletic department. Since then Haagen has been reappointed by the president as the committee’s chair every year and has served countless athletes to prepare them for professional athletic careers.

Discussion

Share and discuss “PREPPING FOR THE PROS” on social media.