The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The NCAA wants agents to have a college degree. LeBron James thinks that is BS.

The NCAA's new rules for agents are riling NBA superstars. (Keith Srakocic/Associated Press)

An NCAA memo requiring agents to have a college degree may be intended to protect college players, but it has infuriated LeBron James and other NBA stars, with some saying it is aimed at the league’s most powerful agent and growing player influence and dubbing it “the Rich Paul rule.”

Paul, who represents Anthony Davis, Ben Simmons, Draymond Green, John Wall and James, among others, has no degree.

“Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop! They BIG MAD and Scared,” James wrote Tuesday night in a tweet laden with laughing emoji. “Nothing will stop this movement and culture over here. Sorry! Not sorry.”

Chris Paul, who played two years at Wake Forest before turning pro, tweeted that he “COMPLETELY” disagrees with the NCAA’s memo.

“Some life experiences are as valuable, if not more, than diplomas,” the Oklahoma City star tweeted. “Y’all need to rethink this process. This is crazy!”

The memo, which outlines new certification requirements for agents who want to represent players entering the NBA draft and seems aimed at protecting college players, was given to agents Monday and was obtained by ESPN. In addition to a bachelor’s degree, certification by the National Basketball Players Association for at least three consecutive years, professional liability insurance and completion of an exam taken in person at the NCAA’s Indianapolis office in November are required. Prospective agents also must clear a background check.

The memo hits particularly close to home for James, who came to the league out of high school and did not attend college. He and Rich Paul have a partnership that began shortly after James came to the NBA as the No. 1 pick in the 2003 draft. Paul and James left Creative Artists in 2012, with Paul creating Klutch Sports Group, which recently joined United Talent Agency.

According to the new NCAA criteria, Paul wouldn’t be able to represent underclassmen testing the NBA draft waters.

NBA player reaction was swift, especially when James wrote simply in another tweet: “#TheRichPaulRule.” Charlotte Hornets forward Miles Bridges retweeted that, with four laughing emoji. Even Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang weighed in, writing, “Instead of putting arbitrary requirements on agents, the NCAA should pay Division I athletes who generate millions in revenue for their schools.”

The memo, according to ESPN, also stipulated that agents agree to cooperate with the NCAA in investigations of rules violations, “even if the alleged violations are unrelated to [their] NCAA-agent certification.”

But it was the college degree requirement that caused the most backlash. As NFL Network host Rich Eisen pointed out, plenty of other accomplished people don’t have college degrees. “Imagine if people in their industries lobbied to make sure they couldn’t ply their crafts with some silly rule about needing a degree,” he tweeted. “Requiring Rich Paul to get a BA is BS.”

Comedian and actor Kevin Hart chimed in: “The world is so afraid of ground breakers. . . . This is beyond sad & major B.S. . . . Keep shining @RichPaul4. . . . This only makes you stronger. . . . What you have built is unbelievable, champ. . . . #TheRichPaulRule. . . . Shame on you, NCAA.”

The NCAA defended its decision Wednesday night. “Although some can and have been successful without a college degree, as a higher education organization, the NCAA values a college education and continues to emphasize the importance of earning a degree," it said in a statement. "We were guided by recommendations from the Commission on College Basketball — which spoke with the agent and advisor community — that the NCAA certification process should be more stringent than current processes.

“With this in mind, we benchmarked our new rules against requirements for other organizations that certify agents, like the NBPA, which also requires agents to have a bachelor’s degree. While different and distinct, our rules taken together, which is the manner they were meant to be examined, provide a clear opportunity for our student-athletes to receive excellent advice from knowledgeable professionals on either the college or professional path they choose.”

Perhaps a mid-June Sports Illustrated cover story on Paul struck a nerve. The story used Davis’s departure from New Orleans to demonstrate just how seriously and quickly power was shifting in the league.

“Nothing signaled Klutch’s raw challenge to the status quo,” S.L. Price wrote, “more than last January, when Davis told New Orleans not only that he wouldn’t sign a five-year, $240 million supermax extension with the team this summer, but also that, with a year-and-a-half left on his contract, he wanted to be traded — and Paul made the demand public.”

Amid the NCAA backlash Tuesday night, James tweeted that SI cover and went on to pull a quote from a 2012 ESPN story about the “major threat” posed by Paul.

“Rich is now a major threat to every large corporate agency that exists,” agent Chris Luchey told ESPN that year. “The fact that the largest icon in the sport today has an agent from a boutique firm kills every myth these large agencies have been standing on.”

Just as James is no longer that high school kid, Paul’s firm is no longer “boutique."

Paul, 37, is a Cleveland native who first forged a relationship with James in 2002 over a Warren Moon throwback jersey. They were about to hop on a plane at the Akron-Canton Airport when James inquired about the shirt, one of many Paul was selling out of the trunk of his car. He was en route to Atlanta to buy more and gave James his supplier’s information, telling him to use his name for a discount.

“He used to listen to me and how I was going to get out of the inner city and make a difference, and I used to listen to him say how he was going to get out and make a difference,” James told the New York Times in a 2014 story headlined “Agent of Change.” “Those conversations turned to how we are going to do it, and then to, why not do it together? I wanted him to be with me.”

James has praised Paul for “humbleness and generosity,” but Price notes that “no one doubts that he can be ruthless and calculating. But he does so while posing question after question, never fronting an expertise he doesn’t possess, and giving the impression that he’ll always tell his truth.”

Arn Tellem, Davis’s first agent who is now Detroit Pistons vice chairman, echoed that and called Paul “a good listener, has humility, has worked as much as anyone trying to learn and, most important, he’s sincere and has an empathy. So he connects and understands what his clients are trying to achieve. He builds incredible personal relationships, and they believe in him. That’s the essence of a good agent.”

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