For some Texas university football programs, summer means the approach of Agent Day, an invitation-only speed-dating exercise that offers sports agents access to senior players before their final season.
If sports agents play by school rules and Texas law, they can make a 15- to 30-minute pitch to the athletes they hope to represent in the NFL — but then must forgo any contact until after the athlete plays his final down. In a switch from previous years, the University of Texas at Austin will hold its Agent Day after the football season instead of this summer, when Texas A&M, Baylor and other schools hold theirs.
It is a high-stakes drill based on a single meet-and-greet. A sports agent’s first impression on a college player can mean the difference between representing a late first-round draft pick, like Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, who went to the Cleveland Browns, and being shut out altogether. For the player, it can mean the difference between finding an agent who can only negotiate a basic contract and hiring one who can pay for white-glove service, including elite personal training ahead of the league’s spring draft.
While universities and Texas legislators believe the rule and others governing the state’s sports agents are needed to protect student-athletes, agents say the short window of access can lead NFL hopefuls to make bad decisions.
“It’s like trying to decide who you get to marry based on one 15-minute meeting," said Drew Pittman, whose Domann & Pittman sports agency in Waco represents 35 professional football players.
Some sports agents would like more access to players at a time when the NCAA’s definition of student-athlete is being challenged in an antitrust case brought by the former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon. If O’Bannon prevails and the concept of amateurism in sports is thrown out or redefined, the rules of access for agents could change drastically. And that would have huge ramifications in Texas, home to more than a dozen Division I football programs.
Texas is one of more than 40 states with a sports agent law intended to curb inappropriate contact between agents and student-athletes. The purpose of laws like the 1987 Texas Athlete Agents Act, one of the nation’s oldest, “is to give schools a cause of action when there is a violation,” said Andrew Bondarowicz, executive director of the National Association of Sports Agents and Athlete Representatives, who also teaches sports law at Rutgers University.
Texas can point to some enforcement success: The secretary of state’s office has collected more than $67,000 in fines since 2009, mainly by reviewing contracts signed by Texas players and finding agents who were not registered.
Agents say this type of enforcement fails to penalize registered agents who sidestep the rules on access, particularly in the age of electronic communication and social media.
“How are you going to stop a cellphone call or a Snapchat?” said Neil Stratton, president of Inside the League, a consulting firm in Houston that works with agents, financial planners, parents of players and trainers in the football industry. Stratton said athletes routinely get agent referrals from other players or even coaches who are also represented by agents — contact that is not monitored by the lawyer and the clerical staff member at the state office responsible for enforcing the law.
The law does not call for the secretary of state’s office to actively check on agents’ contacts with athletes by camping out at Agent Days or other meet-ups sanctioned by schools. Instead, the state registers agents through a $500-a-year fee. Agents must also put up a $50,000 surety bond. Enforcement is entirely complaint-driven.
“By having an individual register,” said Alicia Pierce, a spokeswoman for the secretary of state’s office, “that helps make it clear and transparent.”
Critics say transparency does not translate into better enforcement. Instead, they argue, the rules penalize those who do comply.
“I’ve spent $22,000 with the state of Texas in state registration fees over the years, and I’m not sure what I’ve received,” Pittman said. “I’m paying the same bond amount as the guy who doesn’t have a track record."
In 2010, an Associated Press analysis of sports agent laws nationwide found that no state had suspended an agent or taken any disciplinary action of any kind other than fines.
Emily James, a spokeswoman for the NCAA, said the governing body was examining ways to reform the most widely used national guidelines most states rely on in their agent laws to “enhance enforcement and address current inadequacies.”
Last year, an agent from Georgia was charged with violating sports agent laws for providing plane tickets and cash totaling $24,000 to three former football players at the University of North Carolina who are now in the NFL, adding fuel to the national conversation about whether student-athletes should be recognized as professionals.
Before Charlie Strong left the University of Louisville to become the head football coach at the University of Texas at Austin, he let agents know that they were unwelcome before a player’s last game at Louisville. Agent Day would occur after the final game, not before the season, he told them.
As SI.com reported last summer, when Strong was still at Louisville, the school’s athletic department sent a letter to agents asking them to abstain from contacting players until the 2013 season ended.
"At the end of the season, I will make sure you have no chance to represent our players,” Strong told SI.com, referring to sports agents who violated his rules. “Not that I'm being arrogant, but I want to put a statement out there: You continue to mess with our players, this is what we're going to do."
Strong plans to have the same rule at Texas. “Coach Strong does the Agent Day after the final game of the regular season, so that’s when we’ll be doing it here,” said John Bianco, the associate athletic director for media relations. “That has not been scheduled at this point.”
But Pittman pointed to a recent Alamo Bowl game to illustrate how fast agent decisions could be made, and how unfair they could be to those who followed the rules. The player he was interested in finished the bowl game after midnight. By the time Pittman reached out to him at 9 a.m., it was too late — the player had already made other plans.
“You think he wasn’t talking to someone all throughout the year?” Pittman asked.
From the perspective of players’ parents, the agent rules can be a mixed bag. Student-athletes need to be prepared when professional teams come knocking. But too much contact with agents can be a problem.
“I could easily see where it could be a distraction from a head coach’s perspective,” said Greg Mauro, whose son Josh played at Stanford and signed as an undrafted free agent this year with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
In the end, Josh Mauro settled on an agent a friend had chosen and whom he met for the first time the morning after he played in the Rose Bowl against Michigan State.
Greg Mauro, who lives in Bedford, said Stanford officials had urged parents to hold off on agent business until after the season.
“We let him be a student,” the older Mauro said.
Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.