The statistics, to begin with, were impressive. at 6 feet 10 and with a full season of college eligibility still ahead, Jeff Ruland already had shattered just about every basketball record at Iona College, a commuter school in the Westchester County suburbs of New York City.
With 1,855 points over three seasons, he was the leading scorer in the history of the college. His average of 20.7 points and 12.1 rebounds a game and his 50 percent shooting accuracy from the floor made him one of only six players nationwide to perform so well in those three areas. Twice, he led his team to the NCAA tournament.
Clearly a promising and potentially lucrative career as a professional lay ahead, but Ruland announced in April that he would forego the pros for one more year to complete his senior year at Iona.
Then, there began a sequence of bizarre and contradictory events, of the type that have occurred with increasing frequency in the big money world of professional sports in recent years:
Iona's president and the school's basketball coach called a press conference the next day to announce that Ruland had forfeited his college eligibility by signing a personal management contract a year earlier with a professional agent, Paul Corvino of Mamaroneck. Ruland, declared Brother John Driscoll, Iona's president, had been "sweet-talked" into the agreement for which he had received cash and other favors in violation of NCAA rules.
Ruland applied for the National Basketball Association's draft pool as an underclassman. He would subsequently be picked in the second round by Golden State and traded immediately to the Washington Bullets for future considerations.
Corvino announced he had no contract at all with Ruland. "The only thing Jeff signed with me was a paper a year ago endorsing Ronald Reagan and there was no money involved," he declared.
Ruland repudiated Corvino as his agent.
Corvino met with writers for Basketball Times in the New York law offices of Tom Andrews, an associate of Roy M. Cohn. In fact, there was an agreement with Ruland, Corvino declared, and under its terms he was entitled to 10 percent of Ruland's gross earnings over the next four years.
In exchange for his signature, Corvino asserted, he had, in the last year, given Ruland cash totaling $9,000, purchased shares of oil stock in Ruland's name, opened a bank account containing $2,500 for him and lavished several other "gifts" on the gifted basketball star. "These kids need security while they are still in school," said Corvino. The lawyers made it clear that any attempts to displace Corvino as Ruland's agent would be met with a court challenge.
Ruland served formal notice that he considered any arrangements with Corvino null and void.
Attempts to reach Ruland directly were referred to his lawyer, Kevin J. Plunkett, who described himself as "Jeff's personal attorney, not an agent." He declined comment on the particulars of the case.
"Jeff's major concern is playing basketball," said Plunkett. "He is anxious to come and play ball with the Washington Bullets, and we are trying to get him ready for that."
In the world of professional sports, Ruland's case is a classic illustration of the increasingly influential role of the agent, particularly in the often rocky transition from college to professional athletics.
The role of the agent in sports has escalated dramatically in the last four or five years in the scramble for cuts of six- and seven-figure contracts.
In the highly competitive and potentially lucrative business, the activities of agents in sports are also only minimally regulated and slightly policed.
"It's a real problem," says Joe Paterno, head football coach at Penn State. "There are really no professional standards. Anybody who is a fast talker who can get a kid who might be a little naive, slip him a few bucks and get him to sign something can be an agent."
Says Leigh Steinberg, a West Coast lawyer, who represents professional athletes, "The field of athletic representation is like the Wild, Wild West. Anyone can be an agent. Every frustrated jock, every accountant who is bored, every lawyer who is doing pig-iron contracts feels that athletic representation could be a lot more exciting, and it offers some vicarious thrills. The Hillside Strangler could be an agent."
National Collegiate Athletic Association rules prohibit college athletes from signing with an agent or accepting cash or gifts.
Violations can mean forfeiture of eligibility, but NCAA officials themselves concede enforcement is difficult at best.
"As an enforcement staff, we have a great deal of difficulty discovering the violations when they do occur," says Steve Morgan, executive assistant in the NCAA's enforcement department.
"There is no incentive for the athlete to disclose that he has signed. And even if we discover that he has, we have no jurisdiction over the agent.
"There is a great deal of pressure in this business, and some of these young men, especially the top players, are highly pursued by the agents.
"We'd like to be able to protect the athletes from the shysters who will take 10 percent of a long-term contract up front and then disappear. But there are an awful lot of people who see the opportunity here for a fast buck, and they go after it."
Compounding the enforcement problem is the fact that in most cases, the coaches themselves don't know when a player has signed early with an agent.
Paterno says he warns his Penn State players against early signing with an agent on the theory that an agent who is willing to bend NCAA rules probably is untrustworthy in other matters.
University of Maryland football Coach Jerry Claiborne says he was unaware his top running back, Steve Atkins, had signed with an agent the summer before his senior year until he read about it the following spring in Sports Illustrated.
"I called him in, and I told him it was wrong," said Claiborne. "He said he didn't know it was wrong then, but after I talked to him he realized it was."
The story in Sports Illustrated quoted Atkins as saying he'd signed with Michael Trope, a Los Angeles-based agent, and that representatives of Trope had lent him money. Atkins subsequently denied signing and having received loans but declined to duscuss the incident further.
Trope, who has boasted publicly that he earns as much as $700,000 a year as an agent, later sued Atkins and about a dozen other NFL players claiming breaches of contract and seeking $2 million in damages from the players and their lawyer, Richard Bennett of Washington.
After several months of legal maneuvering, Trope eventually signed a stipulation of settlement releasing the players and Bennett of any claims he may have had against them.
Trope did not respond to telephone inquiries from The Washington Post, but the signed stipulation is a matter of public records. He collected nothing from the players and nothing from Bennett, according to Bennett.
"The notion of a 10 percent fee for negotiating a football contract is simply outrageous," said Bennett, who also represents Washington Redskin No. 1 draft pick Art Monk. "And just because you get a player to sign a piece of paper and lend him some money, does that mean you've got him for life?"
Bennett also figured in another court decision, handed down this spring, that both he and Richard Berthelsen of the National Football League Players Association believe may have even further implications for the professional sports agent.
That case involved Washington Redskin cornerback Lemar Parrish and Leo M. Zinn, a Chicago agent. In April 1971, Parrish, then a seventh-round draft pick of the Cincinnti Bengals, signed a personal management contract with Zinn. Under terms of that agreement Zinn would perform a variety of services, including contract negotiations and financial and investment advising. He would get 10 percent of Parrish's earnings for his trouble.
From 1971 through 1974 Zinn did, in fact, negotiate Parrish's contracts, but the relationship soured in 1974 and Parrish notified Zinn he was terminating the relationship. He stopped paying the 10 percent fee. Zinn subsequently sued, seeking 10 percent of Parrish's earnings for 1974-75 and 1976.
Bennett counterattacked with the argument that since Zinn had held himself out as a financial and investment adviser, he was required to register under the Investment Adviser Act of 1940. Since he hadn't registered, Bennett argued, his contract with Parrish was null and void.
After four years of litigation, a federal judge in Chicago bought Bennett's argument and declared the contract unenforceable.
Judge James B. Moran said Zinn had acted in good faith "but in ignorance of the federal requirement." That he didn't know he was required to register, the judge said, was "illustrative of the most serious deficiency in his case: he did not have the capabilities and experience necessary to provide the services he obligated himself to provide."
Zinn says he was only trying to help Parrish make the best deal possible for himself. "I'm not an expert in stocks or bonds," said Zinn. "But I tell my players before they spend their money to come in and talk it over with me. I try to instill in them the idea of saving their money and buying their own home or homes for their families."
The real significance of Zinn vs. Parrish, says Bennett, is that it establishes the precedent that an agent who represents himself as a financial adviser cannot enforce his contract unless he first complies with a set of regulations -- the Investment Advisers Act.
It is precisely the lack of regulation of agents' activities, says William Westin, administrator of the Association of Representatives of Professional Athletes, that has caused the industry so many problems in the first place.
"There are a lot of crooks out there," says Westin, a professor at the University of Baltimore Law School. "This business is highly competitive and it does lend itself to being unscrupulous. We're not against licensing or regulation, but the big problem is who's going to do it."
Formed two years ago with an initial push from the NFL Players Association, ARPA is trying to promote standards of competence, professionalism and integrity within the business, according to Westin.
But since membership is entirely voluntary, ARPA lacks clout, and no one in the business is forced to subscribe to its code of ethics unless he or she chooses.
In any event, the alliance between ARPA and the football players association soon broke down, essentially because their interests were not compatible. "If you're a union promoting a guaranteed wage scale, it's difficult to be in an agents association," said Westin.
Berthelsen of the NFL players' group contends ARPA is a failure. "The NFL Players Association is seeking a franchising system in which no agent could represent an NFL player unless he had been licensed by the union."
A group of agents not connected directly with ARPA is seeking to have the players association decertified as bargaining agent for the NFL players. t
Among them are Trope and Jerry Argovitz, a retired dentist from Houston, who says he just got into the business of representing athletes a year ago.
"Ed Garvey (head of the players association) is socialistic," says Argovitz, contending that the most recent contract negotiated with the NFL owners was less lucrative than it could have been.
Garvey is on record as saying the challenge to his union stems from the fact that "the agent don't like the fact that somebody is trying to regulate their conduct."
Washington lawyer Bennett says the efforts against Garvey "clearly reflect the agents' concern that Garvey will negotiate a wage scale with the owners that will make the agents unnecessary."
Argovitz says the whole business "is a big mess. There are a lot of people who don't know what they're doing.
"I won't sign a player early. I won't give them any money. I won't buy them cars and I won't give them any dope," said Argovitz, whose best-known client is Billy Sims, the Detroit Lions' No. 1 draft choice from the University of Oklahoma.
This spring Sims signed for the reported $1.74 million payable over a period of 10 years.
"We're the ones," said Argovitz, "who are setting the salary scale in this country." CAPTION: Picture 1, Iona's Jeff Ruland forfeited last year of NCAA eligibility by signing with agent; Picture 2, Michael Trope has boasted that he earns $700,000 a year as an agent.