All the talk of late about the role of agents in college football reminded me of a discussion during last month’s gathering of athletics administrators in Anaheim, Calif. The topic was agents, and one of the guest speakers was a former superagent named William H. (Tank) Black.
Black has quite a story. A former college football coach who left the University of South Carolina more than 20 years ago to represent pro athletes, he was well-known in the 1990s as an agent for dozens of first-round NFL draft picks.
But he also drew headlines for his brushes with the law: Black spent nearly eight years in prison on federal charges of conspiracy to commit money laundering and conspiracy to commit fraud. (Some of the charges were later overturned on appeal.) He was also accused of funneling money to college football players to win their business.
Last month, Black had blunt words of advice for the few dozen athletics officials who showed up to listen to his remarks.
“There are a lot of empty seats in this room,” he began, looking out at the cavernous ballroom. “If I were giving a talk to agents about how to infiltrate families,” he chided, “this room would be packed.”
And with that, Black offered a warning to the officials: Do not underestimate the influence agents have over talented college athletes—or the eagerness of some players to disregard NCAA rules and go along for the ride.
“Sports agents are the CEO’s of the sports industry,” cautioned Black. “Please do not be naïve to think that you’re competing against someone who’s not a formidable competitor.”
But he acknowledged the challenge many athletics officials face. “You have an impossible job,” he said. So many people have something to gain from the players, including coaches, family members, and friends, he said. What’s more, Black added, many players “feel like they’re more important to the agents than they are to the universities.”
“The only way you’re going to have a chance is, you’ve got to catch these kids as they come in the door,” he said. “If you don’t get close to them, they will not trust you.”
The stakes are high, and the enticements are many, Black added. “Any time you have a lot of money involved, you are going to have a couple things you can’t get away from,” he said. “There’s going to be corruption, and there’s going to be temptation.”
The latter, he added, is not just for players. Coaches, too, are vulnerable, and of all people should understand how quickly the lines can blur.
“We think people that break the rules are just bad people,” he said. “Let’s say one of your college coaches is recruiting the top high-school football player in the country. The player comes to him and says, ‘Look coach, I really want to come to your university. If you just do one thing for me, I’m coming. I need $2,000 [because] my family has no money.’
“What’s that assistant coach going to do? Say, ‘No, that’s against the rules’? What he’s gonna say is, ‘Look, we don’t really break the rules here at so and so, but let me get back to you.’ That’s a tremendous temptation,” Black said. “It happens.”