By Mark Giannotto
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 31, 2010; 10:55 PM
FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. - Virginia Tech senior cornerback Rashad Carmichael had a feeling he would need an incognito appearance as he walked to the team bus following the ACC championship game earlier this month.
His cellphone received a deluge of random numbers in recent weeks - phone calls Carmichael assumed were from agents trying to pitch their services - so the Clinton native pulled the brim of his championship hat tight against his brow, hoping the collection of random people milling about outside Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte wouldn't recognize him.
"They actually do a pretty good job disguising themselves, but you notice people staring at you, looking at you," Carmichael said when asked to re-create the scene earlier this week. "Maybe you look at a girl or something and she'll look and turn away, but an agent won't turn away. They start looking harder. I'm not a guy that wants to be seen, but they'll find you wherever you are, wherever you go. There's guys outside the bus yelling me numbers, telling me to call them. I'm like, 'It's illegal man, that's illegal.' And they don't care, they don't care at all. . . . I know I talked to at least six guys. I just gave out the wrong number a few times."
Carmichael's dilemma is one many of Virginia Tech's NFL draft-eligible players find themselves in during the weeks leading up to Monday's Orange Bowl. While the 12th-ranked Hokies try to focus on their matchup with No. 5 Stanford, some also must deal with NFL agents trying to make their final pitches to sign clients for the following season.
One misstep could affect a player's eligibility or perhaps even bring NCAA sanctions onto his school. And while Virginia Tech's director of athletic compliance, Bert Locklin, says the school's strategy revolves around "begging these kids to wait" until after the bowl game is complete to begin speaking with agents, the reality is the process to becoming a professional football player often moves much faster than that.
College athletes are allowed to talk to agents, but cannot accept benefits from them or enter into any agreements with them.
"The same rules apply to the extent that an agent can't even buy a player a sandwich at Subway," said Darren Heitner, chief executive of Dynasty Athlete Representation and a sports attorney with the law office of Koch, Parafinczuk & Wolf in South Florida. "But it definitely picks up around this time in terms of communication and really that's why you see so many athletes choosing their agent the night of or the day after their bowl game. They have their mind set."
Bowl season isn't the only time players will deal with agents, either directly or indirectly. Though Virginia Tech requires all agents to register with its compliance office if they plan to make contact with a student-athlete during the course of the season, the school has little control over runners - an industry term that generally refers to independent contractors who serve as intermediaries between agents and athletes.
Heitner said runners are usually the first form of contact between an agent and a player, and tend to be in the same demographic and close in age so they can relate more easily.
But face-to-face contact with runners has not been that big of an issue since Virginia Tech arrived in South Florida on Wednesday. The Orange Bowl provides security on every floor of the Hokies' team hotel, and a captain from the Virginia Tech campus police department also accompanied the team on the trip.
That, though, hasn't stopped all contact. Running back Ryan Williams, a third-year sophomore who is considering leaving school early to declare for the draft, said he gets so many inquiries from strangers saying they represent an agent, he's "kind of stopped using my e-mail, and if it's a number that's not saved, and if I don't know you, I'm not picking up. I don't even remember the last time I checked my voicemail."
"It can get very stressful if you pick up the phone every time," said senior quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who decided to heed the coaching staff's advice and wait until after Monday's game to begin the process of picking an agent with his family. "I just try to stay away from it. I have two cellphones. That helps me. I leave one of them at home. That eliminates half the calls."
Social media outlets have also become a new way for agents to target players. Carmichael said he frequently gets Facebook friend requests from girls, and upon accepting them, will receive a message saying they represent a certain agent.
He said runners were ever-present throughout his four years in Blacksburg, but he first noticed them this year after Virginia Tech defeated Georgia Tech at Lane Stadium in a nationally televised game in early November. As he walked to his car in the parking lot afterward, multiple strangers approached him pitching certain agents' services.
"The craziest thing is they know exactly who you are," Carmichael said. "I'm just walking, but they will plan to try to bump into you or just stop you so they can try to talk to you real quick."
Carmichael said he was never offered money or gifts before, and nobody on Virginia Tech ever mentioned receiving improper benefits from a runner or agent. "But I wouldn't doubt it," he added.
This, it seems, is the real danger with agent contact during bowl season. Last year, the NCAA investigated whether former Florida offensive lineman Maurkice Pouncey, then a junior, received $100,000 from an agent between the 2009 SEC championship game and the 2010 Sugar Bowl. Nothing came of the probe, however, and Pouncey now plays for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"You never know what you're getting yourself into or who to trust or who to believe," said senior tight end Andre Smith, a potential late-round draft pick who is also waiting until after the Orange Bowl to begin selecting an agent. "In an industry like this, you can't really trust anybody."
Earlier this year, the spotlight focused on the agent industry when North Carolina became embroiled in a scandal surrounding some of its players and coaches potentially receiving improper benefits from agent Gary Wichard. Then, in a recent Sports Illustrated article, former NFL agent and Wichard runner Josh Luchs alleged he paid more than 30 college players during his career.
The NFL Players Association subsequently suspended Wichard's license for a year. Heitner said these revelations have made agents more careful in the short term, but the only way to initiate real change in the industry will involve the full enforcement of state and federal laws concerning agents.
As of January 2011, 41 states have something similar to the Uniform Athlete Agent Act (Virginia is not one of them) on the books, and there's also an additional federal regulation, the Sports Agent Responsibility and Trust Act (SPARTA), that requires all agents to be registered in those states. Runners, however, cannot be prosecuted under these statutes.
"Certain states, their secretary of state, their attorney general have stated that they will go to the full extent of enforcing their laws," Heitner said. "Will it actually happen? That remains to be seen. It's funny because the sports agent profession is glorified in some ways, and in other ways, we're seen as a bunch of slimeballs. But everyone wants to be an agent, so it's an interesting disparity."
Heitner said his biggest piece of advice to college players looking for representation is to take advantage of having so many suitors. He says players should ask questions about the best contract an agent has ever negotiated, how many deals have they been a part of or whether they have a legal background.
Virginia Tech's formal position is to educate their student-athletes about the pitfalls that could come from illegal contact with agents. Locklin said the compliance office instructs players to "be careful of people who are trying to get close to you based on your athletic ability."
Carmichael took a slightly different approach than what the athletic department recommends. Unlike some of his teammates, he has already begun the process of selecting an agent with the help of his mother over the past month.
He's been getting calls and correspondence from agents ever since last season's Chick-fil-A Bowl, but he said anybody who disrespected his wishes or made him uncomfortable throughout the past year was eliminated from consideration immediately.
"Some guys understand I ignored a couple calls and they'll be like: 'We understand you wanna work on the season, so we're gonna leave you alone. We'll call you after the season.' So the guys who have done that, done it the right way, we're just talking to them now. I just want to get through this process the right way."