NCAA Breaks With History to Let Basketball Players Sign Agents

(Bloomberg) -- Elite college basketball players now will be allowed to sign with agents to help explore their pro prospects, as the NCAA breaks with more long-held restrictions to fix a scandal-plagued system.

The reforms announced Wednesday are part of a wider set of changes by the NCAA Board of Governors and Division I directors amid a federal fraud investigation of college basketball agents and managers filtering money to athletes. The new rules take effect immediately for elite college athletes and could later apply to high school players.

Federal prosecutors in September lobbed criminal charges against 10 coaches, managers, financial advisers and representatives of sportswear companies, exposing an underground flow of money from corporations and would-be managers to talented high school recruits. A task force led by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice issued recommendations to the NCAA four months ago.

“Today was obviously a very important day for the NCAA, and especially men’s basketball,” NCAA President Mark Emmert said on a conference call. Joking about his own organization’s pace of change, he said the review took a “remarkably short period of time by NCAA standards.”

Changes include allowing players to participate in the NBA draft without losing their college eligibility. Schools will also be compelled to pay for education of former players who later return to finish their degrees, and face stronger penalties for those who break the rules. The NCAA will also ask college presidents and chancellors to sign documents affirming that they’re aware of the rules, and that they have an obligation to report any violations.

The new rules continue a reactionary trend for the NCAA, which has struggled to get ahead of unprecedented public and legal pressure. In the past few years, the Indianapolis-based organization has gradually loosened a number of its bylaws all while holding on to the underlying tenets of amateurism. For example, it allows its richest conferences to write some of their own rules and students to receive stipends to augment their scholarships.

Still unclear are details about the agent certification process and how many players will be eligible under the program. The agent relationships, which must be divulged to the NCAA and relevant universities and will only be allowed once the playing season ends. It must be severed if the athlete enrolls or returns to school.

Emmert said that there will be no financial relationship allowed between the player and agent outside of smaller expenses such as meals and travel to meet with pro teams. The new rules also state that the money must be spent where the student lives or attends school -- essentially preventing junkets.

Eligible players will be college athletes who request the NBA Undergraduate Advisory Committee to evaluate their pro prospects, and high school players who are named senior prospects by USA Basketball. The latter will only apply if the NBA changes its rules to make high school players once again eligible for its draft.

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