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The NCAA’s ‘Rich Paul Rule’ is all about protecting its money and power

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A new proposal restricting which agents athletes can work with were (and still are) about more than one man.

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Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on Aug. 7 and updated after the NCAA amended its agent certification requirements on Aug. 12.

One year ago, the NCAA announced college basketball players testing the NBA draft waters would be able to seek the guidance of an agent without losing their eligibility. On Aug. 6, the NCAA issued a memo fine-tuning the restrictions around which agents athletes are allowed to hire.

Under that proposal, a underclassman can work with an agent and retain his eligibility should he decide to return to school provided that the agent:

  • Has a bachelor’s degree
  • Has been certified by the NBAPA for the last three years
  • Passes an in-person exam administered at the NCAA national office in Indianapolis

After a week of public backlash that culminated in a critical Athletic op-ed by Klutch Sports head Rich Paul, the NCAA removed the requirement for a bachelor’s degree for any agents that are “certified and in good standing” with the NBA Players Association. But why did the NCAA initially have the degree requirement in the first place?

On its face, the initial regulations were put in place to protect student-athletes from being exploited by individuals offering counsel without the proper means to provide it. In reality, they were (and arguably still are) just another avenue to ensure the NCAA is the one doing the exploiting. The initial rules offered nothing but a vain attempt to exert control over athletes who realize their talent is worth more than the cost of a scholarship.

Almost instantly, the NCAA’s original mandate earned the organic nickname it deserved: the Rich Paul rule. LeBron James didn’t waste a second going in:

Paul himself had pointed criticism for the rule in an op-ed for The Athletic.

I actually support requiring three years of experience before representing a kid testing the market. I can even get behind passing a test. However, requiring a four-year degree accomplishes only one thing — systematically excluding those who come from a world where college is unrealistic.

Hours later, the NCAA amended the rule to include agents who were certified by the NBPA, but did not receive a bachelor’s degree.

That list includes Paul, the 37-year-old behind Klutch Sports and one of James’ closest confidants. As legend has it, he caught the eye of a high school-aged LeBron in an airport because he was wearing a Warren Moon throwback jersey. Paul started to build a relationship with James from there and leveraged it into a thriving representation business for sports and entertainment. When Paul’s second biggest client, Anthony Davis, made a trade demand earlier this year that held both the Pelicans and Lakers hostage, it made him one of the most infamous people in sports.

Unlike most agents, Rich Paul is African-American. Unlike most agents, he didn’t go to college. He was too busy building an empire.

NBA players saw this as a naked attempt to single out Paul

Paul took college classes at Cleveland State and Akron before dropping out when James put him on the payroll (he has since been given an honorary degree from Cleveland State - go Vikings). Paul eventually began working for super agent Leon Rose at CAA when he realized he could do this himself, so long as he had LeBron at his side. Klutch Sports was born.

In a 2012 ESPN profile, Paul put his schooling in perspective:

”I had great teaching,” Paul says. “Working with Nike and at CAA, that’s the equivalent of going to Michigan Law School and to MIT.”

At this point, Paul’s accomplishments come with no asterisks. He is a self-styled mogul who is only gaining more influence both in the NBA and in Hollywood. The NCAA couldn’t keep Rich Paul away if it tried — he could always have an underling with a degree take a test in Indianapolis and handle the more hands-on aspects of representation. This is bigger than one man.

The NCAA’s new rule wasn’t explicitly about Rich Paul. It’s about making sure no unwanted parties could check its power.

The NCAA has been living in fear of agents for the entirety of its existence, marking the intersection between college athletes and personal advisors as the exact point where amateurism and professional sports start to blur. It’s this context that made last year’s decision to allow college basketball players to begin working with agents during the draft process feel like such a landmark occasion for proponents of athletes rights.

Of course, the NCAA has no interest in athletes rights. If they did, they would have used the sprawling FBI corruption investigation as an opportunity to rewrite the bylaws of their organization. Instead, the Condoleezza Rice-led commission that developed these rule changes did little more than double-down on the NCAA’s existing standards.

The NCAA isn’t requiring agents to have a degree and to pass a test so it can protect players. It’s trying to protect its own money and power. This is the NCAA’s attempt to eliminate any future individual who might threaten it.

The NCAA doesn’t want athletes to turn pro — it wants them to stay in school and help make money for everyone but themselves. This is the organization that truly, honest-to-god believes freshmen should be ineligible. This is the organization that booted a kicker off a college football team because he was profitizing his YouTube channel.

The NCAA only wants NCAA-approved agents giving advice so it can maintain its grift. The truth is that most of the people in the NCAA’s universe do not have the best interests of the athletes at heart. It’s why Jim Boeheim came out swinging against Darius Bazley, the former McDonald’s All-American who reneged on his commitment to the Orange to instead train for the draft. Bazley, by the way, hired Rich Paul, signed a $1 million deal with New Balance, and still got drafted in the first round. That decision worked out just fine for him.

The NCAA is feeling the heat, both from athletes exploring other avenues to reach the pros and from the people who constantly point out their hypocrisy. In the end, every move the organization makes is to ensure its long-con keeps running. Trying to sanction where advice can come from is just the latest extension of that.