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The NCAA is acknowledging that it won’t collapse if players can sign with agents

A rule expansion only goes so far, but it raises a point.

COLLEGE HOCKEY: NOV 25 Red Hot Hockey - Boston v Cornell Photo by John Kavouris/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The NCAA’s power conferences voted Friday to let men’s hockey players sign with agents and not lose their college eligibility. The representation has to stop before the players actually enroll in college.

College baseball players were the first to get this privilege, in 2016. Agents had been repping MLB draft prospects for years, but those deals were long unofficial, because the NCAA threatened players with a loss of eligibility if they had agents.

So the powerful people in college sports decided to bring things partially into the light, letting high schoolers officially have agents during the draft process. This rule change comes amid the FBI’s ongoing probe into college basketball corruption that’s laid bare the pitfalls of under-the-table representation with no oversight.

The expansion of the rule raises the question of why the NCAA doesn’t allow revenue-sport athletes to hire agents and why some star football and basketball players have seen their college careers ended because of dealings with agents. That’s a fair point, though the way the draft process works in baseball and hockey is a little different.

Even in those sports, the NCAA has only gone so far. The baseball draft is loaded not just with high schoolers, but with college juniors and seniors. In both sports, active college players are still not allowed agents, technically, because the rule cuts off before players get to campus.

A similar dynamic will exist in hockey, where players get drafted at 17 or 18 and then decide whether to play in kind-of professional junior leagues or in college programs. Because official agent representation has to end before a college career starts, players won’t get to lean on an agent in deciding whether they should cut their NCAA careers short and sign entry-level contracts with the team that holds their draft rights.

“This proposal will provide men’s ice hockey prospective student-athletes and their families with the opportunity to obtain professional advice and representation in the interest of making the best informed decision as to whether to start a professional career,” the conferences said.

The NCAA referred a request for further comment to the Big Ten, which introduced the idea. A Big Ten representative didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The rule change might not have much effect, in reality.

That’s because most hockey and baseball draft prospects already have agents. They’re just not called agents, but rather “advisors.” The common term in hockey is “family advisors,” who might help a new NHL draftee decide whether he should play collegiately or in a junior league.

One connected college hockey person I talked with after the rule passed guessed that it might affect 50 or fewer players a year, high school players who’d face college-or-junior decisions after getting drafted.

Similarly, there’s no evidence that baseball’s draft process has changed fundamentally since agents became an official part of it two draft cycles ago. Plenty of top high school prospects have passed on signing after getting drafted, with the advice of agents, then gone on to have college careers. That’s not new.

On some level, it makes sense that men’s hockey and baseball are the two sports where players can now do this.

Those are the only two sports where players get drafted by professional teams and can still play in college. The NFL and NBA have deadlines before the draft for players to decide whether they’re in our out. There’s no such thing as going through the draft process and then backing out.

Former Arkansas and Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema has suggested letting undrafted underclassmen return to college for their senior seasons. That won’t happen any time soon, but it’s a reasonable idea for both the NFL and NBA. It just has a few hitches:

  1. Football and basketball players lose all their remaining college eligibility the second they hire an agent. The NCAA could fix this part by doing what it’s just done in hockey.
  2. The NFL draft is after National Signing Day, and teams might not have many scholarship slots left to accommodate undrafted returnees. The NBA draft might present a similar dilemma, though the wide gap between college basketball’s signing periods (one in November, one in April) makes it harder to say.

Still, college baseball hasn’t fallen apart because kids have been allowed to sign agents. College hockey isn’t going to fall apart either.

The College World Series is the same big event it ever was. College baseball players still celebrate home runs more boisterously than the big leaguers do, and they still have to make the same MLB draft decisions they always did. In hockey, the Frozen Four will keep getting played, and players will keep having to wear masks or shields. Player agents will not kill college sports, though coach agents have done a number on them.

Because the NCAA isn’t going all the way in and letting players keep agent representation, we won’t get to see how that’d look in other sports.

The NCAA denies athletes economic rights — getting paid, mainly, but also having agent representation — on the grounds that providing them would violate a mostly mythic “spirit of amateurism.” But now, NCAA schools are acknowledging in writing that players can do the obviously professional act of signing an agent, then still play college hockey or baseball under whatever theory of amateurism the NCAA wants.

That doesn’t beat down the door on the NCAA model, but it cracks the door open. Players in other sports are going to see the light.