When news broke this week that the NCAA is tightening its certification guidelines for those seeking to represent college athletes, the immediate backlash was fierce and, by the very nickname it was given, focused on agents.

LeBron James dubbed it “The Rich Paul Rule” on Twitter in honor of the super agent who represents James and several other top NBA stars but would not meet the new requirements because he doesn’t possess a college degree.

Many agents and college basketball analysts agree the regulations — which the NCAA said are intended to ensure players receive experienced counsel before forgoing their college eligibility — seem intended to lessen the influence of Paul and other younger agents, many of whom are African American. But critics of the new rules say their concerns go deeper: that the NCAA is making it riskier for athletes to explore a career in pro basketball.

“If a quote-unquote student-athlete wants to test the waters, let them test the waters — don’t put a toaster in their hands,” college basketball analyst Jay Bilas said in an interview. “What [the NCAA] is doing here is putting up barriers to make it more difficult for the asset of the university to leave. That’s what they’re doing. … It’s funny how the burden is disproportionally on football and basketball, the burden is disproportionately on men and the burden is disproportionally on African American men.”

The new rules, spelled out in a memo sent to agents Monday, dictate that anyone seeking to represent a college player must meet three criteria: The agent must pass an in-person exam taken in November at the NCAA offices in Indianapolis, must be certified by the NBA Players’ Association for at least three years and must have a bachelor’s degree.

The changes come less than a year after the NCAA relaxed eligibility rules for college basketball players, allowing them to enter the draft and consult with agents while retaining the option to return to college. That move, made in response to recommendations by the Condoleezza Rice-led Commission on College Basketball created in response to widespread corruption in the sport, was well received as an overdue acknowledgment of the type of player-adviser relationships that had long existed below the board.

But the Commission on College Basketball also recommended the NCAA certification process for agents “should be more stringent.” After the added layer of requirements became known, the NCAA released a statement Wednesday.

“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,” the statement read. “… While different and distinct, our rules taken together [with the NBPA] 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.”

The negative reaction is understandable from agents, who, after all, are vying for the chance to represent these players. But agents and outside observers say the new rules also hinder players by restricting the flow of information they may receive. Allowing only those who meet the NCAA’s new criteria excludes significant segments of the agent pool no matter how good they are at their jobs — not just those without a bachelor’s degree but also any up-and-coming agents who haven’t been NBPA-certified for three years. It also excludes those agents trying to break into an industry that’s predominantly white and male.

Many, including agent Darrell Comer, who represents the Los Angeles Clippers’ James Palmer and the Washington Wizards’ Chasson Randle, see the NCAA rules as paternalistic at their base.

“I don’t see how this benefits players, because you’re limiting their options,” Comer said. “Every young man that makes the decision to test the waters and potentially leave college should have the ability to meet with all the prospective agents they feel would be best suited for the job. Truth be told, a two-year agent who may work at a firm where they've gained experience or even built a relationship with this young man versus someone who may not even know the kid but may have 20 years of relevant experience — both of those perspectives could benefit that athlete.”

It’s not just any athlete the NCAA is restricting, contend Comer and others such as Jason Glushon, who represents Al Horford of the Philadelphia 76ers. The NCAA rules don’t extend to baseball and hockey, where players can be drafted and return to college without penalty no matter with whom they consult.

“The NCAA seems to be targeting the NBA and NBA Agents given other sports, such as Major League Baseball or the National Hockey League, are not required to complete the same guidelines for doing the same duties of advising and representing their respective student athletes,” Glushon wrote on his agency’s Twitter page.

The regulations only apply to basketball, “the only revenue sport [the NCAA] has complete control over,” said Bilas, who noted that the NCAA has less power over college football because conferences and universities control much of the revenue. There’s also an element of race that Bilas said can’t be ignored — 56 percent of Division I men’s college basketball players are black, according to the NCAA’s data.

Plus, in addition to career barriers being put up to their younger cohorts, some agents also see the new regulations as a simple money grab by the NCAA, which will charge a $250 application fee and $1,250 certification fee to complete the process.

As for the scope of the new regulations, many say little will actually change. College players will continue to test the waters with potentially greater rick to their eligibility, well-established agents such as Paul won’t be affected, and many expect agents to find myriad loopholes.

What bothers Bilas most is the NCAA purporting to protect players.

“Look, none of this is sinister; it’s just misguided,” he said. “The NCAA is in no position to protect the players in this regard — there’s no ethics requirement here. A college degree doesn’t mean that you’re ethical. One of the agents that was at the center of this entire thing, the FBI investigation, was Andy Miller. Well he’s got an undergraduate degree; so what?

“The NCAA, what do they gain from this? They don’t protect anyone, and they just look bad. You’d think after looking bad in so many different instances, someone would say, ‘Hey, why don’t we not do this?’ ”

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