The NCAA's war on its own players -- at least its baseball players -- appears to be moving into a new, more aggressive phase. It has to do with a questionnaire obtained by several of us at ESPN.com, including myself and Jerry Crasnick, who wrote about this new development earlier this week.
The questionnaire was sent to players who were drafted this June but did not sign. It asks recipients to violate their own attorney-client privilege in a number of ways while also asking them to provide the NCAA with evidence that would allow it to revoke the players' eligibility, should the judicial order issued by Judge Tygh Tone in February be vacated or overturned at any point. (The judge ruled that the NCAA cannot prevent players from hiring advisers in direct contact with major league clubs.)
The questions included:
3. Did your adviser have any direct communications with any MLB clubs on your behalf?
4. Did your adviser discuss your signability with any clubs?
10. What percentage of your signing bonus would your adviser have received had you signed. (This would have been discussed during your initial meeting(s) with your adviser.)
11. If you have a written agreement with your adviser, please fax a copy of this agreement ... as soon as possible.
Make no mistake about this: The NCAA is trying to limit players' negotiating power because it wants to reduce the chances that they sign pro contracts. That would steer more talented prep players into college and retain more college players for another year of eligibility.
Most major league clubs will tell you that they want to negotiate with experienced agents who (a) understand the financial structure of the game and (b) know what is and is not standard in a first-year player contract. That kind of agent is vastly preferred over parents or family friends, who lack both the experience and the knowledge that would keep their demands in line with the loose market for amateur players.
In short, the NCAA is protecting college baseball at the expense of players' rights, their professional futures and their financial well-being.
The NCAA insists that the Eligibility Center is just gathering information and that the NCAA has no intention of violating Judge Tone's order. This is technically true, but the questionnaire's only apparent purpose is to gather information that may be used to revoke eligibility of players in the event that Judge Tone's order is overturned on appeal. If the order is vacated in any way, the NCAA will have a store of information it can use to take its revenge on players who did nothing more nefarious than use attorneys to attempt to negotiate major financial transactions for them. It is a right we all take for granted when making major life decisions like changing jobs or buying a house. And because the NCAA threatens to revoke the eligibility of a player who doesn't fill out the questionnaire -- even if the player's attorney advises him not to fill it out -- the best course of action for many players will be to lie.
What the NCAA has never made clear is this: What, exactly, is the harm to the player or to college athletics if a player uses outside counsel to negotiate with a professional team and then chooses not to sign? The player still remains an amateur in the dictionary definition of the term. He is still an unsigned player who has not received direct financial compensation for his services.
But the NCAA is trying to hold players to its own arbitrary standard of amateur-ness -- one that is out of date and at odds with MLB's practice of drafting and sometimes signing players out of high school. If the NCAA doesn't end this witch hunt, don't be surprised to see even more players sign out of high school rather than expose themselves to arbitrary and capricious punishments from the NCAA, with some players fleeing for junior colleges or NAIA programs instead.
It is possible that the NCAA will end up going in a new direction when it chooses a permanent successor to the late Myles Brand in the coming months. In the meantime, this questionnaire, and the obvious intent behind it, means that the NCAA is as determined as ever to protect its cartel at the expense of players' rights and wallets. Let's hope that future jurists agree with Judge Tone and decide that the NCAA has overstepped its authority.