Based on athletic talent alone, defensive end Robert Quinn should be invited to the NFL Scouting Combine this week.
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That doesn’t make it right.
Quinn — a likely top-10 pick in the April NFL draft — and University of North Carolina teammates Marvin Austin and Greg Little were suspended for the entire 2010 season after taking illegal benefits from an agent. Their selfish actions didn’t just derail what was projected as a banner year for the Tar Heels. The trio, along with other UNC players who received lesser penalties for similar infractions, is representative of the ongoing payola crisis in college football.
"It’s a huge problem if you believe in the integrity of the college and pro game," said Rick Smith, a prominent Chicago-based agent for Priority Sports and Entertainment. "That should be everything. The rules are there for a reason — for people to follow, not completely ignore."
Yet, at the same time, the NFL is overlooking such behavior by welcoming players whose eligibility was stripped, like Quinn, Austin and Little, for workouts in Indianapolis. The league did the same previously for top prospects like Dez Bryant and Andre Smith after they washed out of the college ranks.
This must stop.
Players who knowingly stray from the straight and narrow shouldn’t be given the same professional courtesy as those who follow the rules (or at least weren’t caught doing otherwise — let’s not be naive here). The same argument can be made against those prospects who committed off-field transgressions that would result in discipline under the NFL’s personal-conduct policy.
Take the case of Quinn, who accepted $5,642 in jewelry and travel benefits. Rather than hearing the NFL Network glorify his physical prowess during its upcoming Combine coverage, the focus would instead be on why Quinn isn’t participating in the event. Those prospects who stayed eligible would rightfully be given the spotlight.
Barring tainted players like Quinn wouldn’t destroy their draft stock. They could still participate in their respective college’s pro-day workout as well as private sessions and interviews with NFL teams as part of the usual vetting process.
But a Combine ban would send a chilling message that might make some tempted college stars think twice before doing the wrong thing.
By the way, this wasn’t my brainchild. An NFL head coach told me last fall that Troy Vincent, a former player turned league executive, planned to pitch the idea to commissioner Roger Goodell.
That never happened, according to a league spokesman. Vincent wasn’t made available for comment.
"Right now we don’t have a system in place where either the agents or student-athletes have a healthy fear," said Rick Smith, the agent. "What’s the answer? We don’t know yet. That’s what everyone is trying to figure out."
The NFL and NFL Players Association might not be able to agree on a labor pact, but both sides know that what Smith describes as the "wild, wild West" of illegal recruiting and improper benefits must finally be addressed.
Although long willing to serve as the NFL’s farm system, colleges are becoming frustrated enough to publicly complain about the lack of rules enforcement help from the league and players union.
During last year’s Southeastern Conference media day, Alabama head coach Nick Saban went so far as to say he might consider banning NFL scouts from the Tuscaloosa campus (whether he did or didn’t do that briefly last August remains unclear). These comments came as Crimson Tide defensive end Marcell Dareus was being investigated for accepting payola that ultimately resulted in a two-game NCAA suspension.
And, yes, Dareus is headed to the Combine, as is Georgia wide receiver A.J. Green, who was suspended for four games last season after selling one of his college jerseys to an agent.
"We treat the NFL as well as anybody in the United States when they come to Alabama," Saban said. "If something doesn’t go on from their end to control what they’re doing to affect our players, then I’m not sure that same hospitality will be welcomed in the future."
Southern Cal was hit last year with heavy NCAA sanctions, including a postseason bowl ban, for violations that included star running back Reggie Bush and his family receiving improper benefits. The school recently hosted a symposium that included representatives of the NFL, NFLPA, NCAA, SEC and Pac-12 to discuss how university athletic departments can better deal with unscrupulous agents trying to prematurely sign pro prospects.
Smith was one of the agents invited to speak at the event. He is encouraged that communication has improved between various governing bodies. That should result in better rules enforcement. One of Smith’s peers, Gary Wichard, received a nine-month suspension by the NFLPA (the governing body for NFL agents) because of his involvement with Austin at North Carolina.
"Everybody is collectively on the same page trying to solve the problem," Smith said. "Each group may have a different approach to it, but everyone is at least talking. When people start making this a priority is when things will gradually start to change."
Drawing attention to those efforts with a Combine ban will accelerate the process.