In the wake of Thursday's vote to grant the five high-revenue conferences some autonomy in making rules that govern major college sports, the onus now shifts to athletics directors and conference commissioners to formulate an agenda that can be implemented beginning next year.
But among the issues that have already been floated for the Power Five conferences to consider, one stands out as particularly thorny in the search to come up with meaningful reform.
Though there is agreement across college athletics that current rules governing the relationship between athletes and agents need to be liberalized, the discussion so far has been heavy on media-friendly talking points and light on detailed prescriptions.
Even Southeastern Conference Commissioner Mike Slive, who repeatedly has stressed the need to bring agent issues out of the shadows, acknowledged his ideas are more conceptual than specific at this point.
"I always compare it to a dancer or a singer or another unique talent. Our schools bend over backward to help them realize their aspirations," Slive said. "We've had informal conversations with (NFL) Commissioner Roger Goodell -- or I have had them on behalf of all of us -- but we're a long way from what we're going to do. We really have not focused on the nitty-gritty or gotten into the weeds."
It's a conundrum for the NCAA, which is facing internal and external pressure to reform while trying to preserve key elements of its amateur model.
On one hand, it makes sense for the NCAA to look at ways to deregulate an area that long has been unrealistic for schools to police in the first place. On the other, it's possible the only meaningful reform would be allowing college athletes to have agents, which would inject a far greater element of professionalism into the process than a few thousand dollars in spending money.
But even that idea isn't considered so radical anymore.
"We allow students on our campus to be recruited by Boeing and Microsoft and get career advice," Washington athletics director Scott Woodward said. "If a kid wants to do that in our program, they should be allowed. Receiving and being paid for that service is one thing, but retaining an agent for the future is something I would have no problem with."
It may be unavoidable -- all the way down to the recruiting process.
The NCAA's new autonomous structure, for instance, will clear the way for schools to enhance their athletics scholarships with the so-called "full cost of attendance," an amount that likely will be different from school to school based on cost of living factors and what expenses are considered incidental for each school.
Vanderbilt athletics director David Williams said he could envision the scholarships schools offer being so different that it naturally would give rise to a cottage industry of agents or advisers to help parents compare packages or perhaps negotiate a better deal.
"I wouldn't relish having to sit down with every kid we sign and they have an agent, but at the same time I think kids and their parents, when they sign, they need to have a little more information -- and we're about to make it more complicated for them," Williams said.
The real obstacle to reform is that even if college athletes are allowed to have agents, the NCAA can only do so much to regulate the flow of money.
Even now, it's not against NCAA rules for athletes to communicate with and get advice from agents. Several high-profile colleges even have so-called "agent days" where basketball and football players can sit down with certified agents for interviews and information. And in sports like baseball and hockey, in which players can be drafted and then return to college, the difference between having a legal adviser and an agent is more or less semantics.
But because agents stand to make hundreds of thousands of dollars in commission when high-profile players turn pro, some could circumvent that process by trying to lure players with illegal benefits.
If a player is found to have taken money from an agent or entered into even a verbal representation agreement, the school could face significant NCAA penalties, even if officials had no knowledge of the transaction. Darren Heitner, a Florida attorney and founder of the Sports Agent Blog, said the threat of violating NCAA rules is why many schools are skittish about agent days or other events that facilitate education and dialogue.
"If they can open it up and provide some clarity as to what is and isn't permissible, you may see some of these very restrictive policies change," said Heitner, who co-owns a company that staged an agent day at Memphis the last three years. "Schools don't want to necessarily create a wall between players and agents, but I think they felt they had to just to live with their potential liability."
Shifting that liability away from schools and instead working with the NFL and NBA to punish agents who provide illegal benefits could be a starting point, even though the autonomy legislation doesn't specifically address reducing schools' responsibility for violating agent rules.
Rather, the power conference schools are framing it as an issue of allowing athletes to get the information they need to make good decisions about when to turn pro. They might have a point: Of the 98 underclassmen who declared for the NFL this year, 36 went undrafted.
"They're all told (by agents) they'll get to the second contract, but the reality is very few will get there," Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney said. "If you're drafted in the third or fourth round, by the time you pay the government, pay your agent, buy some clothes and a car, you've just got a good, high-paying job that isn't guaranteed to last very long.
"Some guys are just tired of school and want to go. That's fine; you weigh all the pros and cons. I just want to make sure guys are informed, because you can't come back."
That trend may not change, even with a more open process. But the general momentum toward modernizing agent rules almost certainly will lead to changes over the next couple years, even if college athletics leaders aren't yet sure exactly what to change.
"We've got to figure out a better way," Florida athletics director Jeremy Foley said. "It's part of the conversation that is long overdue. The rules were voted on by us and they've served a purpose, but they do need to change. How that should happen? I don't know."
Contributing: George Schroeder
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