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View from the 'ville
Thursday, August 5, 2010

By Al Myatt

Education on agents ongoing at ECU

By Al Myatt
All rights reserved.

Some high profile college football programs have been investigated by the NCAA this summer because of the possibility that some potential pro players received improper benefits from agents or their representatives.

At Southern California, the luxuries allegedly received from an agent by the family of former running back Reggie Bush have resulted in NCAA sanctions against the Trojans. USC planned to return the Heisman Trophy that Bush won in 2005.

When East Carolina players and coaches convene today to prepare for preseason practice, the topic of agents will be addressed. Pirates coach Ruffin McNeill said ECU has already coordinated a session with seniors, their parents and agents.

"There was an NCAA-approved and compliance-run meeting with agents with our compliance office present with prospective seniors and their parents," McNeill said. "It was the morning of the spring game where they have all the barbecue contests. Our senior guys are at a meeting prior to that.

"They go through the process. ... The agents and their representatives come on campus and actually meet and go through the rules with the rising senior and their parents or guardian."

The education of the players in regard to NCAA regulations concerning agents will continue today.

"It's not really a practice day," McNeill said. "It's the first reporting day but we're not practicing. It's a day where we go through a series of administrative subjects with our team. Mr. (Tim) Metcalf (ECU's director of compliance) and Rosie (Thompson Smaw, associate athletic director) will speak, along with Mike Hanley (head trainer) and some other guys are lined up as well as law enforcement.

"We have a series of speakers that speak with our football team. This issue will also be addressed during that time. Those are the two official times that we do it. Our offensive coordinator, Lincoln Riley, and our defensive coordinator, Brian Mitchell, and myself will meet with players during the year.

"Besides the NCAA meetings that we have in the spring and our first reporting day, we meet with the players throughout the year."

North Carolina reportedly has had defensive lineman Marvin Austin and receiver Greg Little questioned by NCAA investigators this summer. The issue apparently is whether expenses to a party in Florida that players from several Southeastern schools allegedly attended were paid for improperly.

McNeill said he recently spoke with Tar Heels coach Butch Davis at a gathering in Durham.

"Each agent has what they call runners," McNeill said. "The runners are the ones that are hard to control by us. You can't watch prospective seniors' first cousins. A runner might be able to get to that first cousin. ... That's where a lot of things, in talking to Butch, that was hard for him.

"How do you protect from a family member that is not associated day to day with your program? That's where the hard part comes for a coach. You try to educate the player on your team to inform everyone in his family that it would be detrimental to not just him but the program.

"That's sort of it in a nutshell. That's how we try to handle it here and it's probably on point with everyone else. I've spoken with Mack Brown and guys I knew in the Big 12. They say the same thing. The same problem is there for each one of us."

McNeill said the potential influence of gamblers also will be a topic today.

"That's a part of the meeting," said the ECU coach. "You try to address those issues and any other issues that may come up — the betting and now with the agent mishaps going on, you have to make that part of the conversation as well."

An agent's perspective

Ralph Vitolo is a Fayetteville-based pro sports agent and ECU alumnus who has represented former Pirate gridders such as George Koonce, Vonta Leach and Ernie Logan.

Vitolo is one of 16 agents living in North Carolina who is registered with the NFL Players Association. Vitolo estimated that about 20 agents or firms represent about 70 percent of the NFL's roughly 750 players. That leaves the rest of the agents in potentially vicious competition to front for the remaining 30 percent.

"There's roughly 950 contract advisors — is what they call them — in the United States," Vitolo said. "Some of these guys send runners to Chapel Hill, Raleigh, Greenville to befriend these guys when they're sophomores or juniors. You know, take 'em out to eat, get to know their family, get to know the janitors at the schools. It's like recruiting from high school to college.

"Their basic objective is to befriend these guys so that by the time these guys are seniors the other agents aren't going to have a chance to sign them because they're going to lock them down."

In North Carolina, the Secretary of State's office attempts to regulate agents. Vitolo registers with the state for a cost of $200 annually. North Carolina's football program has a relatively high number of potential NFL draft choices, according to Vitolo, possibly six or seven.

Some coaches, such as Alabama's Nick Saban, have sought to spin the situation, placing the blame on agents and avoiding their own responsibility.

"They're indicting all the agents because of a few agents who have done the wrong thing," Vitolo said. "If those guys wanted money, they should have come out last year. Austin elected to stay because there were so many defensive linemen last year.

"Well now he doesn't have any money so he goes in the spring and has a good time at parties and people lining him up. Now he's moaning about it, but he ran his mouth about it. So now it's making us all look bad but I think it's like lawyers and everything else. There's a few bad apples."

Vitolo said more severe punishment is needed for agents that break the rules. Regulation has increased in the two decades that he has represented athletes but he says more stringent penalties are in order.

"Suppose you fine a guy $25,000 for giving a financial inducement to a player and the guy's a first round draft pick," Vitolo said. "You put him on probation for a year. That's a drop in the bucket. If a guy gets a $5 million signing bonus and you get three percent, that's $150,000. He'll do that all day long, won't he?"

Vitolo said coaches need to devote more attention to counseling players about how they might be approached by agents and the consequences for accepting illegal benefits.

"There's culpability with the agents, there's no question about that," Vitolo said. "There's also culpability with the coaches and the administration and athletic directors as far as making sure these guys don't do it. ... The player is as culpable as the agent if he participates in something he knows is wrong.

"I think you've got one player who blew it out of proportion because he wanted to talk about what he was getting and what he was doing before he even played his senior year. I don't think it's out of control. You've got the NFLPA policing this and we are under certain guidelines."

In addition to the NFLPA and the NCAA, the Secretary of State's office is taking an active role.

"About a week ago, I got a letter from the Secretary of State, the attorney that works for the Secretary of State," Vitolo said. "All the agents that are registered in this state got it.

"Basically, what it said was, if you've got any contact with these six North Carolina players — and the first player was Austin — you need to preserve all of your text messages, phone calls, faxes or whatever contact you've had with them.

"In the second paragraph it said if you know of any agent that has had misconduct with them, we need to know that also. So they're basically telling us if you had contact with them, you better save your stuff because if it appears on their phone and it's not on your phone or computer and you erased it, you're going to be held responsible."

Pirates set a precedent

ECU took action in regard to an NCAA infraction of another variety this summer. McNeill accepted the resignation of special teams coach Mark Nelson for improper observation of summer workouts.

"We want to make sure that we're not going to run the program in that type of manner," McNeill said. "We don't want that happening, even though it was a secondary violation in NCAA terms. That's not the way we want the program run.

"We want to make sure the product here at East Carolina is one that everybody can be proud of. We demand that our players lead and the coaches do the best job that they can to lead as well."

The action on Nelson sent a clear message as to the manner in which McNeill plans to conduct business with regard to NCAA regulations. The Pirates coach said responsibility for monitoring the actions of agents is widespread and includes ECU fans.

"We want to raise the team here in a village-type atmosphere," McNeill said. "Everyone in our village, the Pirate Nation, they have to help — help us, not just me but the university with that problem."

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Al Myatt Archives

09/04/2010 02:01 AM


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