Agent tells his side of the story amid controversy about Alabama football coach Nick Saban comparing rogue agents to pimps

Special to the Ledger-EnquirerJuly 25, 2010 

The name calling is nothing new for those in John Phillips’ line of work.

Ambulance chaser is the first that comes to mind, he said, before a certain college football coach attached another Wednesday with slightly more bite. Now, he is ready for reform of the mostly unpoliced waters his business occupies.

Amid a week of stories and scandals involving high-profile college players’ contact with agents, the backlash began. Alabama coach Nick Saban, whose star defensive end Marcel Dareus is being investigated by the NCAA, compared rogue representatives to pimps while speaking at SEC Football Media Days in Hoover, Ala.

Phillips, an agent who earned his undergraduate and law degree from the University of Alabama, can laugh away the association to a peddler of prostitution.

“It gets a little exaggerated,” he said. “If agents are pimps, what does that make the players? It’s a little offensive from that end, but I get it.”

Saban’s dig, though, was not directed at Phillips, a relative newcomer to the business of athlete representation. His firm, Breakthrough Sports Agency, is only a year old, with a client roster including former Alabama players Eryk Anders and Zeke Knight.

But Phillips isn’t the shy, new guy in the industry. He already is taking steps to improve the flawed system which has sparked the negativity that made headlines in the past week.

The near lawless world of sports agents is compared to the “Wild, Wild West,” Phillips said because laws on the books are practically unenforceable. There are federal laws that ban agents from tampering with collegiate athletes, as do 39 states, including Alabama, but they depend on state police to enforce them. And when state attorneys general and secretaries of state aren’t clear on the issue or don’t have the resources, corruption reigns and crimes go unpunished.

“The bad apples — the pimps — are spoiling the game,” Phillips said. “It’s only going to mean more restrictions. What’s next? Me, as two-time alumni of that university and an agent, I can’t go to games because of rogue agents?

“It’s getting to the point where enforcing it is getting grossly unfair. You’ve got to protect your players if the NFL won’t do it and the states won’t truly find a way to bring these guys down.”

That’s where Phillips’ new law review comes in.

The 25-page document that he hopes will get published in a law journal could draw loose comparisons’ to the manifesto or mission statement penned by the title character in the movie “Jerry Maguire,” based on the life of former super-agent Leigh Steinberg.

It’s a plan to clean up the business by punishing the “pimps” and creating avenues that make enforcement practical.

Phillips even caught himself using a quote directly from Tom Cruise when talking about the issue on a radio interview. His plan calls for strict new guidelines to govern the approximately 850 agents certified by the NFL Players Association.

“I’m going to advocate for some sort of federal registration or licensing,” Phillips said. “This business requires crossing state lines over and over.”

Agents need to obtain a license from every state home to an athlete they contact. In Alabama, that licensing fee can cost as much as $200 for a new application and $100 for renewals. The website of the Alabama Secretary of State lists 160 certified agents with addresses that span both coasts and everywhere between.

In states such as Florida, that same certification costs $500 to apply and $750 to license. Individual schools also require agents to register with the institution to contact their athletes. UA publishes a list of 55 certified agents on its website, rolltide.com, under its compliance page link.

Phillips agrees with a plan Saban floated that would suspend the NFLPA licenses of agents who step outside the rules. He then took it a step further.

Saban said the crooked agents should get a year’s ban for wrongdoing , but Phillips said it should be a two-strike deal. First offense: A one0 or two-year suspension. Do it again, and you’re out of the game forever.

Right now, the only parties suffering are the athletes and the schools for whom they play. NCAA sanctions are possible for the institutions that use players who are later found to have improperly dealt with an agent, as was the case with the penalties handed to USC this year in the Reggie Bush case. Players also can lose eligibility in cases such as former Oklahoma State wide receiver Dez Bryant, who lied about his contact with an agent’s runner.

There already are signs of progress and a harder line taken with agents.

Big-name agent Ian Greengross is the target of an investigation opened by the NFLPA for its use of runners to recruit new clients, ESPNChicago.com reported Wednesday. Greengross, who represented ex-Tide offensive lineman Andre Smith after a bevy of agent issues, allegedly hired a recruiter to pose as an NFLPA official who swayed potential clients his way, the website reported.

Getting the NFLPA to continue cracking down on the agents is not easy. There isn’t much incentive for the group, because the talent will come its way regardless of how the agents act.

With so much money being made by all sides, getting anyone to change their ways is tough.

“It’s crazy,” Phillips said. “You have to be fairly sharp on the issues and hopefully get trusted by compliance (departments) and do this the right way. I think the good agents will float to the top. We’re not going to get overly punished. It’s going to be hard on us, but it has been. We’ll persevere.”

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