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March 22, 2011
Spring football may not be a substitute for the real thing - fall football - but college football coaches at least prefer it to the alternative, which is nothing at all.
It isn't just the extra practice and repetitions, although that is obviously important, too. But spring training provides a month or so in which the players are in a controlled environment.
Coming between the perils of spring break (ask Mark Barron about the bad things that can happen in down time) and the off-season, that structure is important. Oddly enough, developments outside the world of college football - the breakdown of NFL labor negotiations - may add yet another element of chaos to a time that can already be tumultuous.
The months of April and May were fraught with enough temptation last year, as programs from North Carolina to Alabama itself (in the Marcell Dareus situation) can attest. The story of the summer was agent/player interaction.
Everyone remembers Nick Saban and Urban Meyer lashing out at unscrupulous agents (not all agents, as it was sometimes portrayed) at the 2010 Southeastern Conference Media Days. Those problems occurred in an environment where there was at least nominal enforcement of agent rules by the NFL Players' Association.
One can argue that the sheriff was fat, slow and blind in one eye, but at least there was a sheriff. Now, it's the Wild Wild West.
When the NFLPA decertified itself as a union, one of the consequences was that it gave up its role as the certifying body for NFL agents. Now, there is no certification required.
Anyone - whether it is you, me or the suspicious character you saw last weekend at the gas station - can be an agent. Credentials don't matter. School affiliation doesn't matter. Think about the possible implications of that for a moment.
Things probably won't explode in a worst-case scenario of shady dealings. Most players will still want to go with proven agents, and most agents will try to do things in an aboveboard manner. But there are now fewer barriers for those who do things the other way.
"I think there's a possibility that there may be some people that may do some things," Nick Saban, the Alabama head coach, said earlier this week.
Saban didn't go overboard about the ramifications of decertification. He noted that good agents will still be out there, and that bad ones were out there already.
"This is no disrespect to the (good) agents, but I am not sure how much regulation they have really feared in terms of what some other guys have done," he said. "Those kind of guys will continue to do what they do.
The good guys that respect and trust and try to do the right things relative to the rules of the NCAA and of the NFL will continue to do the right things.
"I don't see a bunch of people trying to jump out there and do something that's crazy."
The problem is that it doesn't take a bunch. It just takes one, especially when the players at the highest risk - underclassmen - have less access to information and contact with scrupulous agents.
"We've really not had problems here with guys that are seniors," Saban said. "Our problems all come from underclassmen who are not allowed to talk to agents to start with, so we can't give them the information that they should get, that they are entitled to. That's why I have constantly supported getting rid of the junior rule (which does not let players meet with prospective agents until their senior year.)"
Saban didn't name names, but he didn't have to. The stories of Andre Smith and Dareus are familiar. And, once again, Alabama has plenty of juniors-to-be that project as possible high draft choices. That's the group that is most at risk.
Still, if and when negotiations between the NFLPA and the NFL owners resume, Saban sees a way to move forward.
"During this collective bargaining agreement, we're very hopeful as college coaches that the NFLPA will throw in with the idea that there is some kind of penalty (that takes effect) after a guy is a pro player," Saban said. "Right now, the player gets penalized in college but really doesn't get penalized at all when he goes into the NFL. And I think he probably should, as well as the perpetrator on the other end, if that's an agent."
Until then, college coaches can only educate - and hope for the best in a world that doesn't always bring out the best in people.
Cecil Hurt is sports editor for The Tuscalooa News. Reach Hurt at email@example.com or 205-722-0225.