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Sun, Feb 7, 2016

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Runners' world: Union boss Smith's noble idea likely stuck at the start

by | CBSSports.com National NFL Insider
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DeMaurice Smith is likely fighting a losing battle when it comes to agents' runners. (US Presswire)  
DeMaurice Smith is likely fighting a losing battle when it comes to agents' runners. (US Presswire)  

INDIANAPOLIS -- This week hundreds of NFL agents gathered to hear an honorable man talk about a noble pipedream. It was a discussion about a significant step to end one of the cornerstones of corruption in college football: runners.

Not the backs getting their 40 times tested at the scouting combine but the slimeball trolls who work on behalf of agents to help recruit -- a generous word -- football prospects by illegally giving them cash (or cars or money for family members or rent for a nice house) so the player then signs with the agent upon turning pro. It's one of the most despicable practices in college sports and has soiled almost every corner of football for decades.

The NFL union oversees player agents and for years has talked about the problem. Now agents believe the head of the union, DeMaurice Smith, is actually going to try and stop the practice.

Smith spoke to agents this week in Indianapolis and gave what some in attendance called a highly inspirational talk on ending the practice of using runners to recruit college players. One agent in attendance described it this way: "He had me on the edge of my seat. Almost everyone there felt like someone is finally going after the bad agents and their runners."

But another agent in attendance said: "It's a great thing to try but he'll never succeed in stopping them. Never. It's like trying to kill every weed in a backyard the size of Texas."

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It's possible many players at the combine this week have had encounters with runners and maybe some that have received significant financial compensation through illegal means. This might be the most open and dirty little secret in college sports.

The system basically works like this. An agent hires someone to make contact on behalf of an agency with players while they're still in college. In many cases runners are armed with cash and give it to players as incentive to sign with the agent the runner represents.

Agents tell incredible stories of runners leaving thousands of dollars in brown paper bags with players; providing cars; paying rent for a player or a player's family; providing cash to a player's family; paying for a family member's medical bills; runners paying for vacations and prostitutes. On and on it goes and it all happens right under the nose of coaches and college officials who are blissfully ignorant. Or at least pretend to be.

The runner system has led to some of the biggest penalties throughout the NCAA's sordid and lengthy history with cheats and programs run afoul. It was determined former Southern California star Reggie Bush had illegal contact with agents and runners which led to the Trojans facing significant sanctions from the NCAA and Bush announcing he would voluntarily return his Heisman Trophy.

What Smith proposed before the agents is twofold. He wants the runner system eliminated and only agents registered with the union would be allowed to have contact with players. In theory this would make an agency far more accountable and cut down significantly on corruption.

Smith also told the agents he wants to eliminate the so-called junior rule that currently prevents agents from having contact with players until their junior or redshirt sophomore year. Agents believe the junior rule is broken all the time anyway and prevents good agents from making early contact and offering potentially helpful advice on legally navigating the draft process.

This all sounds good and again, Smith is a good man with good intent, but the chances of it actually happening are remarkably slim. Runners, unfortunately, are the circulatory system of big-time college football. Their illegalities keep the system afloat. It's not so different from countries where corruption is integral and normal and without it there would be mass chaos.

The only way Smith's idea would work was if there was a legitimate payment system for players instituted by the NCAA to replace at least some of the cash players now get illegally. Actually, the idea of pushing for a payment system -- and even pushing for unionizing college players -- has been seriously discussed by upper-echelon union officials.

The problem is the disparity in the monies. Currently, top players can get thousands of dollars, if not tens of thousands, from runners. Any official payment system from the NCAA wouldn't match that so the runner system, despite Smith's honorable efforts, will probably survive as long as there is massive money associated with football.

Smith is still nonetheless receiving high marks from agents. "I felt like giving him a round of applause after he spoke," said one agent.

And so Smith embarks on the noble pipedream. Good luck, Mr. Smith.

You're gonna need it.

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