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Agent issues

A bill that seeks to curtail the activities of rogue athlete agents and expand Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann’s power to investigate them is headed to conference committee.

Former Jackson State standout and Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Jimmy Smith says he recently expelled an athlete from his sports academy because of ties to a sports agent.

Former Jackson State standout and Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Jimmy Smith says he recently expelled an athlete from his sports academy because of ties to a sports agent.

House Bill 1190 was one piece of Hosemann’s business reform legislative package.

At the center of the disagreement between the House and Senate is each chamber’s definition of an agent and the definition of compensation that would be considered illegal in an exchange between an agent and a student-athlete.

The version of the bill that cleared the House says an agent can be anyone who enters into a contract with a student-athlete or directly or indirectly recruits or induces that athlete into entering a contract. In an amendment, the Senate expanded on that definition. Language in the amendment defines an agent as someone who recruits or induces an athlete into entering into a contract, or, in exchange for compensation or anything of value, “procures, offers, promises, negotiates or attempts to do the same on behalf of a student-athlete, employment with a professional sports team or organization as a professional athlete, or enrollment at any public or private college, university, community or junior college that offers an athletic scholarship to the student-athlete.”

Eligible for inclusion under the agent umbrella are actual agents, their runners, managers, marketing representatives, their financial advisors or other employees.

In each chamber’s version, representatives of a professional sports team are not included in the definition of an agent. Also excluded are attorneys, broker dealers, Realtors, investment advisors, accountants or insurance agents that offer services unrelated to the athlete’s on-field performance.

“The Senate amendment prohibits someone who is a financial advisor, lawyer or other representative from acting as an athlete agent without registering first with the Secretary of State,” Hosemann said in an emailed statement. “The amendment also broadens the definition of compensation to include money and other items of value. We support this amendment.”

The crux of what Hosemann originally intended for the bill to include was struck in the House version, said Sen. Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, chairman of the Judiciary A Committee, which sent the bill to the Senate floor. Rep. Preston Sullivan, D-Okolona, authored the House bill, but referred questions about it to Rep. Brandon Jones, D-Pascagoula, who handled its passage through committee and out of the House. Jones had not responded to a message left on his cell phone by the Mississippi Business Journal’s press time last week. Mississippi is one of several states that are revisiting its athlete agent laws in the aftermath of a few high-profile college football players being ensnared in eligibility issues brought on by their dealings with agents. The University of North Carolina’s football team, considered to have an outside shot at a national championship run in 2010, was gutted right before the season opener against LSU when nearly a dozen players were rendered ineligible after it was discovered they had attended a party in Miami thrown by an agent.

Jimmy Smith, a former wideout for the Jacksonville Jaguars who played his college ball at Jackson State, has started Team 82, which serves as a training facility for elite high school athletes and a safehouse from predatory agents and their runners. The facility is located adjacent to Smith-Wills Stadium off Lakeland drive, and derives its name from Smith’s uniform number.

Smith said the issues the legislation intends to address “are a lot of the reasons we started Team 82. You’ve got a lot of guys trying to act as agents, especially in AAU basketball. We actually had a runner find his way in here last month. We had to kick him out.”

Toward the end of his eligibility at Jackson State, when it was becoming clear he had NFL talent, Smith said he was approached by folks representing an agent “all the time. Every day somebody was coming out of the woodwork.

“It ruins the athlete,” Smith continued. “It ruins their thinking. We try to prevent that. An agent does not get a player drafted or get him a scholarship. That’s up to the player. There should absolutely be a penalty structure in place for agents who do it the wrong way and who don’t have the kid’s best interest as their top priority.”

David Armstrong agrees.

“It’s a mess, there’s no question,” said Armstrong, who runs a Clinton-based football scouting service and spent 18 years in the college coaching ranks before that. “Agents are able to get away with murder. They throw a party and these athletes show up and they’re the ones who end up getting in trouble. Nothing happens to the agent.

“The player is wrong, sure. But the pressure is incredibly intense. There aren’t many 19-year-olds who are going to refuse something like what happened with the North Carolina kids. But if an agent is afraid of being caught and convicted of a felony, and losing his license in the process, that would stop a lot of it.”

Fillingane said the intent of the bill is to prevent scenarios like the one that ended UNC’s season before it started.

“We’re not trying to run agents off or anything like that,” Fillingane said. “We’re trying to firm up some of the statutes.”

Athlete agents that fail to register with Hosemann’s office, and the athletic compliance offices of the school where the athlete is enrolled, and initiate contact with athletes could be charged with a felony punishable by up to two years in prison and a fine of $10,000. That part of the bill is nothing new. What is new is Hosemann’s ability to initiate investigations into agents if his office has reason to believe an agent is acting illegally or is about to act illegally. Those investigations could extend outside Mississippi’s borders. Also new is the ability for Hosemann to compel testimony and to take that testimony under oath.

Compensation an agent gives an athlete would include cash, credit cards, loans, loan guarantees and anything else that carries a monetary value.

“We’ve never had a comprehensive law dealing with sports agents,” Fillingane said. “As policymakers we have to make sure (athletes) are not taken advantage of.”

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