July 21, 2010

Saban, Meyer shift blame to unscrupulous agents

MORE: SEC notes: Hightower ready to make presence felt

HOOVER, Ala. - Each year, hordes of committed fans decked out in their favorite team's apparel gather in the Wynfrey Hotel lobby during SEC Media Days with hopes of getting autographs from their favorite coaches and players.

The sad reality is those fans may be far more committed to their teams than some of the players they adore.

Allegations have surfaced in recent days that Alabama defensive end Marcel Dareus and South Carolina tight end Wesley Saunders, among others, attended an agent-thrown party in Miami earlier this summer. In addition, former Florida center Maurkice Pouncey was alleged to have accepted $100,000 from an agent before last season's Sugar Bowl victory over Cincinnati. All of this has come on the heels of reports that as many as five North Carolina defenders may have had illegal contact with agents.

At Media Days on Wednesday, Alabama coach Nick Saban wouldn't answer specific questions about the Dareus situation, but did say the school's compliance office, "in conjunction with the NCAA," is looking into the matter. SEC commissioner Mike Slive said the league office is assisting in the investigation.

Inappropriate contact with an agent and accepting gifts are cardinal sins in college athletics. Either can cause a player to lose eligibility. A program can lose much more; just ask USC, which lost 30 scholarships and a chance to play for championships in the wake of the Reggie Bush scandal.

So, the news that Dareus was involved in an incident that raised questions about who paid for his travel, lodging and food in Miami provoked frustration and outrage from Saban, who's been through something like this before. But the direction of his anger was slightly off-target.

"I think the NFL Players Association has a responsibility to monitor and control what agents do," Saban said Wednesday during his scheduled appearance at SEC Media Days. "I think if an agent does anything to affect the eligibility of a college football player, his license ought to be suspended for a year.

"That's the only way we're going to stop what's happening out there because it's ridiculous and it's entrapment of young people at a very difficult time in their life."

The times may be difficult for players, but deciding whether to accept an illegal flight shouldn't be.

As with every major-college program in the nation, Alabama has a compliance department that - ad nauseum - educates its players about what they can and cannot do. Every college football player in the country knows a free plane trip to a party held by an agent is illegal. Suggesting otherwise would only be perpetuating the dumb jock stereotype.

Saban did acknowledge that players had to be held responsible for their actions, but he still laid most of the blame elsewhere.

"There are a lot of good agents out there that don't do this stuff," he said. "They're not out there chasing guys and giving them money and breaking rules and flying them all over the country, sending girls after them, all kinds of stuff."

Saban suggested college programs could close their campuses to NFL scouts if the league doesn't take an active role against unscrupulous agents. Perhaps Alabama could be proactive and take the lead on that. Until the NFLPA reacts in a manner to its satisfaction, Alabama could stop accommodating NFL scouts.

But that's not likely to happen. It is standard practice in recruiting for programs to tout their records of sending players to the NFL. No use giving the competition an unnecessary edge.

Ironically, while Saban was expressing his opinion, a message flashed on a giant video screen boasting that the SEC had 49 players selected in the most recent NFL draft, more than any other conference in the country.

Saban used the term "pimps" to describe agents with unethical business practices. Florida coach Urban Meyer called them predators.

"I used the term 'predator' because they're there," Meyer said Wednesday during his scheduled Media Days appearance, a few hours after Saban's. "Since my first day at Florida, I've never seen anything like it. We have security for one reason, and that's to make sure that people are away from our players."

Despite those security measures, Meyer said it's unrealistic to completely shield players from agents that might try to tempt them.

"For a coach to figure out who a [agent's] runner is at a nightclub at 2:30 in the morning ... I've been asleep for four hours," he said. "The coaches can't do that. I've tried to."

Obviously, the inability to keep agents away from players can be frustrating for a coach. Still, an agent can't fly a player all over the country if the player doesn't accept the ticket. The agent can't give money if the player isn't willing to take it.

After the 2008 season, Alabama All-America offensive tackle Andre Smith was ruled ineligible for the Sugar Bowl because of contact with an agent. Without him, Alabama lost to Utah 31-17.

Dareus was on that team. He saw the consequences first-hand. He saw how losing a star player can affect a team. Did Dareus forget?

Maybe Dareus did nothing wrong at all. Pouncey denied taking money, and his twin, Mike, Florida's starting center, vouched for him.

"I talked to my brother and it's not true," Mike said at Media Days. "I feel bad about [the allegation] because it ruined somebody's name. Those that know who we are know we're not those kinds of people. We pride ourselves on having a clean name."

If Dareus did break NCAA rules, he potentially faces a multiple-game suspension. Last season, Oklahoma State receiver Dez Bryant was suspended nine games for lying to NCAA investigators about contact with former NFL star Deion Sanders.

The Crimson Tide would be significantly weakened without Dareus; the Tide already must replace nine defensive starters, and Dareus was expected to contend for All-America honors a season after leading the Tide in sacks.

Alabama is trying to become the first team to win consecutive BCS national championships. One loss can mean the difference between playing in the national championship game and watching it. Dareus may have jeopardized his season just to attend a party.

That's really why Saban should be angry.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.




 

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