It was one of those Sports Illustrated cover stories that forces you to stop and read -- the kind where the words are so powerful and designed to shock that they are the only thing displayed in bold white-on-black text on the cover.
"I will never forget the first time I paid a player," is the hammer quote from former NFL agent Josh Luchs that headlines his first-person "Confessions of an Agent" story in the Oct. 18 edition.
The exposé inside names names (most of whom do not deny the veracity of the details divulged) and gives a candid glimpse into the under-the-table world of star collegiate football players, aggressive agents and the violations that are commonplace in the modern sports business culture.
It's a confession that leaves an impression on anyone who reads it. The impressions it left this observer probably fall on the far extreme of a pretty wide spectrum.
Impression 1: Of course this is happening; take a look at some of the wheels these athletes of modest means at every school are sporting.
Impression 2: So what?
If this had been the confessions of a booster and revealed similar details about payments and bribes to athletes to secure their commitment to one particular college program, my reaction would have been much closer to outrage. That's the kind of cheating I have no stomach for because it creates the unlevel playing field that corrupts the integrity of the collegiate game.
But agents trying to curry favor with kids already committed to colleges on the hope that they might become a high draft pick and provide a hefty commission just doesn't strike the same puritanical chord. In fact, it seems about right to me.
The NCAA has codified sins to such a degree that there is no tolerance for any kind of benefits for student-athletes beyond tuition, room and board. Quite frankly, that entire stance strikes me as bullheaded and hypocritical. They seem perfectly happy for institutions, conferences, coaches and TV outlets to profit wildly on the backs of these players by using them as modern-day gladiators.
They hide behind the tenant of a "free" education -- as if working in the weight rooms and practice fields and devoting weekends for our entertainment don't qualify as labor. It's a sham system.
I have long believed that student-athletes deserve monthly stipends to help cover whatever expenses in life aren't taken care of by tuition, room and board. It's not like they have unlimited time like the average student to get supplemental work in addition to their practice duties and academic requirements.
As it stands now, athletic department budgets can't exactly cover giving student-athletes, let's say, $100 a week for their services. That's why the idea that professional agents are offering such things under the table seems like a pretty attractive and reasonable alternative.
What's the difference in A.J. Green getting $1,000 for a bowl jersey from a prospective agent and the top kids in the journalism program getting a paid summer internship at a big-city newspaper or a law student taking an internship at a high-profile firm? Is it fair to athletes that they don't get the same privileges as other students to test the waters of the market in which they will eventually trade their expertise?
Agents are really no different than the job recruiters who come to campus career fairs and try to woo the best and the brightest. The NCAA has portrayed these agents as predators when really they are just business people who often show more compassion for their potential clients than the schools who profit from them.
The SI article merely gave clarity to a world we all deep down know exists.
"The lunches, the money each month, the bail, the concert tickets, those were all NCAA violations, of course, but in my mind I wasn't doing anything wrong," Luchs said in the story. "I also justified it by remembering that the schools and the NCAA were making money while the players, many of whom came from poor families, weren't getting anything but an education, which many of them didn't take seriously. Plus ... I knew that if they didn't take our money, they would take it from one of the dozens of other agents opening their wallets. Agents have been giving kids money for decades. It was more open in the 1960s, '70s and '80s, before states passed sports-agent laws making it illegal. Now, agents still do it, but they are more secretive and use middlemen. ... It goes on everywhere."
Of course it does. But instead of reading a tale like the one Luchs tells and trying to be even more vigilant in cracking down on this type of relationship, the NCAA and colleges should try to harness it and regulate it.
Why not use the resources of deep-pocketed sports agencies and the NFL to establish accounts to provide the kind of stipends these athletes should be getting in the first place? That way every athlete -- from star football players to practice-squad scrubs to swimmers and field hockey backups -- would get the same benefits to offset their contributions to the athletic programs that enrich the collegiate experience as a whole.
Better yet, maybe college football can embrace the idea of a playoff, generating obscene revenues that could easily offset the increasing student activity fees necessary to balance athletic budgets and create the kind of surplus that can make player stipends an economic reality.
There are solutions to this kind of illicit activity, better ones than acting like Casablanca 's Capt. Renault and feigning shock that such practices aren't de rigueur in the college football landscape.
It's just a matter of perspective. Here's hoping college football's leaders can find it in this confession and move toward the other side of the spectrum.