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Agent watchdogs learning how to bite
Published November 23, 1998
Though it seems that anyone with ties to a big-name athlete can become an agent, it's not true: Players associations are supposed to filter the agent application process for their members by certifying all agents.
The screening process varies among the major sports. While the NFL charges a $1,000 certification fee, Major League Baseball charges nothing. So other than listing the player agents, do the various players unions play watchdog on behalf of their players?
"We are trying to act as the Better Business Bureau for the agents," said Athelia Doggett, agent coordinator for the Washington D.C.-based NFL Players Association. "We can offer some validity to the promises the agents are making to the players."
While the agent certification process among unions has traditionally been seen as superficial at best, some union officials said they are trying to increase scrutiny.
The NFLPA has increased its involvement in player-agent issues and has tightened the application process. Today, the union has 720 registered agents and 1,800 players.
In addition to the $1,000 certification fee, all NFL agent applications are screened by the union's legal department, after which the agents must attend seminars, followed by a written examination.
"Things have changed more over the past few years," Doggett said. "There are more new regulations in place for agents. When the NCAA goes after agents, so do we."
Any agent disciplinary actions and violations are tracked by the NFLPA, and players can now consult the union for background on an agent.
More telling is that the NFLPA is beginning to crack down on agents who it decides have violated regulations. Recently, the union suspended agent Jeff Nalley for two years. Nalley was accused of giving Chicago Bears running back Curtis Enis clothing while Enis was still at Penn State University. If Nalley wants to represent NFL players after his suspension, he must pay a $15,000 fine. It was the stiffest punishment the union has meted out.
The National Basketball Players Association also conducts background checks and requires prospective agents to complete a 20-page notarized questionnaire and attend a one-day seminar. The union charges agents a $1,500 annual fee.
"We were the first to conduct exten-sive background checks," said league spokesman Dan Wasserman.
But to some agents, the certification process is still woefully inadequate. Whether or not the agents' real concern actually is tied to reducing competition rather than to improving standards, it's still a major area of contention.
"It's nowhere near where it needs to be," said Mark Bartelstein, a Chicago-based agent who represents players in both the NBA and NFL. "It's still very wide open, and there needs to be more done to make it more difficult. We're basically dealing with young people's lives, and there should be more stringent rules. It's too easy to get into the business."
The problem, agents said, is that it is nearly impossible for the unions to monitor all agent-player activities and that unions have so many other issues to contend with.
"It's so difficult to prove things, and the business is so competitive," Bartelstein said. "I'm hoping that there will be more checks and balances put in place."
In baseball, where being an agent means having a client on the 40-man roster and filling out a questionnaire, there is little governance, including no certification fee and no annual fees.
"Having a program in place is better than no program at all, but one of the problems is that the union has an extremely full plate," said Barry Meister, an agent who represents 55 baseball players, including Randy Johnson. "Whether we create a committee of agents for more self-governance, or whether there is a more stringent process, I'd like to see some minimal levels of experience and education."
The problem, agents said, is that one poorly negotiated deal by an inexperienced agent can affect the entire market.
"That's an issue that's frustrating for the core group of agents," Meister said. "The market is really dependent on the salaries of other players. There are some terrible things done by less experienced agents or those trying to break into the business, and one bad deal can have ramifications all the way up the dial."