Two years ago, Louisville basketball staff members were going over players' complimentary ticket lists for a home game at Freedom Hall when alarms went off in Scott Davenport's head. Amid the usual roll call of girlfriends, buddies and family members, a name on one of the lists rang a bell, for all the wrong reasons. "The name raised suspicion," said Davenport, then the director of basketball operations for the Cardinals and now the head coach at Division II Bellarmine University. Davenport checked the name with assistant coach Vince Taylor. The two knew: The guy on the ticket list was a runner for an agent. "We wouldn't give him a ticket," head coach Rick Pitino recalled. "The kid didn't know he was a runner, but we knew. We check their ticket lists like FBI people."
|“||They go after the people back home. They'll get the mother. They'll tell her, 'We'd like to represent your son. If we can help you out in any way, let us know.' Then they buy her things and blackmail her. ”|
|— Louisville coach Rick Pitino on runners|
FBI-level surveillance is needed these days at big-time college athletic programs to keep agents and their minions away from prospective pros. We're not talking wiretaps and black ops ? but we are talking constant, time-consuming, staff-draining vigilance. From the compliance office to the coaches' offices to the locker room, everyone is on guard. "It's the most dangerous thing we have today," Pitino said. "We're a little paranoid about these runners." In an attempt to restore a semblance of order and propriety to the agent-athlete relationship, several football programs have begun having an "agent day" on campus. Florida State, Ohio State, Texas and Florida started doing it in the 1990s and others have adopted the idea as well. Alabama had its second annual Agent Day during spring practice, inviting registered agents with at least five current clients to make 20-minute presentations to rising seniors, their parents and athletic department personnel. A dozen agents came to make their pitch this year, according to associate athletic director for compliance Chris King. "We don't tell our players who to sign with," King said. "Our goal is to deter NCAA violations, obviously, but also to give them a backbone for the professional sports education process. This is the first part of that process for a lot of our players and parents." An agent day conceivably limits the need for in-season contact between agents and players. But not all agents play their game above the table ? and those who don't are much more likely to use runners and work around the rules. The world is full of people who want a piece of a star athlete ? and runners are among the most insidious infiltrators of a player's world. The most effective tend to be street-smart, smooth-talking men young enough to relate easily to college and high school athletes. They're often packing enough money to do a boatload of favors ? dinner, drinks, spending money ? whatever it takes to put a star jock in your debt. Players who are accustomed to being fawned upon can be surprisingly easy targets. Young and naïve, they sometimes think runners are just another in a long line of people wanting to be their buddies, no strings attached. "I'd say two-thirds of the [athletes] don't even realize that these guys [runners] are being paid to do it," said a man with knowledge of the business, having worked in client procurement for a financial investor with a long list of athlete clients. When Pitino left Kentucky for the Boston Celtics in 1997, agents and runners were a well-known problem in college sports. When he returned to the college game in 2001 at Louisville, he found that the agent situation was about the same ? but the runners had multiplied. "The runners are worse now," Pitino said. "There's more of them, and they're finding different ways to get to players. Now you have agents hiring runners who are assistant AAU coaches." It makes sense, in a devious sort of way: AAU and summer-league coaches have access to players, and they operate in an arena that's light on legislation and oversight. What better breeding ground for gaining influence? Using AAU coaches is one of the latest in a long line of creative ways for agents to circumvent protocol and rules to reach players. Close one loophole, and unscrupulous agents will find a way to open another. One of the most common ways into a player's inner circle is through his family. Like coaches, runners will indirectly recruit a player by schmoozing with his mom, dad, siblings, uncles or girlfriends. And the best way to make friends is to come bearing gifts. "They go after the people back home," Pitino said. "They'll get the mother. They'll tell her, 'We'd like to represent your son. If we can help you out in any way, let us know.' Then they buy her things and blackmail her." Pitino said he knew of one recent instance where a reputable agent had to step in and make a five-figure payoff of debts his new client accumulated through gifts his family had already accepted from another agent. "It's a bad trend right now," Pitino said. "You don't know who the runners are. The other agents know, and the good ones will tell you who they are. A lot of these [agents] are great, but you have to watch out for the others." Pitino has had several recruits who have listened to questionable advice about turning pro in recent years. He had an oral commitment from center James Lang of Alabama, but Lang wound up going pro ? and going undrafted, never to be heard from again. Last year, signee Donta Smith turned pro out of junior college and signed with a little-known agent out of Chicago. Smith was drafted in the second round by the Atlanta Hawks, signed a guaranteed contract but then rotted on the bench, playing 38 games and averaging 11 minutes and three points per game for one of the worst teams in the league. Football tends to be a less volatile area, in large part because players cannot enter the draft until after their third year out of high school. Teenagers are not part of the agent equation, which helps. But football is hardly immune. And Louisville's football program is becoming an increasingly fertile breeding ground for pro prospects, with six players chosen in the April NFL draft, which means more agents around the Cardinals' program.