HILLSBOROUGH — A North Carolina prosecutor would like to see more enforcement of the state sports agent laws.
Orange County district attorney Jim Woodall is pursuing criminal cases against an agent and ex-UNC tutor and hopes other states follow in a broad attempt to curb improper agent conduct.
"The truth is, I think the institutions and the athletes, they may not realize it, but I think they really pay a price over time for this activity," Woodall said. "And everybody allows it to go on. It's just a wink and a nod.
"I think people's attention needs to be brought to this. I mean, it is against the law."
Georgia-based agent Terry Watson and former tutor Jennifer Wiley Thompson are charged with providing cash and other benefits to three former Tar Heels football players. Watson faces 13 counts of "athlete-agent inducement" involving three current NFL players — Cleveland Browns receiver Greg Little, St. Louis Rams defensive end Robert Quinn and Miami Dolphins defensive tackle Marvin Austin — with nearly $24,000 in gifts in 2010 in an effort to sign them as well as an obstruction of justice charge. Thompson was charged with four counts of providing benefits to Little for that same year.
The state's Uniform Athlete Agents Act requires agents to register with the Secretary of State's office and prohibits offering gifts to entice athletes to sign representation contracts. Woodall has said more indictments are under seal.
Woodall believes it's the first prosecution of its kind nationally. It certainly is a rare occurrence despite 41 states as well as the District of Columbia and U.S. Virgin Islands having laws regulating sports agents.
Whether Woodall's efforts lead to more legal action in other states remains to be seen.
David Ridpath, a former compliance officer at Marshall and Weber State, said the NCAA is overmatched when it comes to regulating agents. The NCAA lacks subpoena power and depends on cooperation from anyone else they investigate. That's where states with agent laws come in, assuming authorities decide to pursue criminal charges against agents or runners.
"I think there's going to be some states that want to stay as far away from this as possible," said Ridpath, now an associate professor of sports administration at Ohio University. "There's some states that don't even have the law. But this might give some others the push they need. It'll be interesting to see."
The North Carolina Secretary of State's office launched its probe in summer 2010 after the NCAA began an investigation into improper benefits and academic misconduct within the UNC football program. Woodall is handling the criminal case since the university is in his jurisdiction.
In a similar case a dozen years ago, an agent received a suspended sentence and probation in Alabama on a misdemeanor charge connected to illegally paying former Auburn basketball player Chris Porter, making him ineligible.
In North Carolina, it is a Class I felony to violate the law, meaning a maximum prison sentence of 15 months for each count, and violations also could carry civil penalties of up to $25,000.
Woodall said authorities here have spoken with authorities in four other states about the investigation, though he didn't name which.
In Tennessee, Secretary of State spokesman Blake Fontenay said Thursday in an email that no one there had been in contact with North Carolina authorities but that the office was "closely watching" the North Carolina case. He also said that while there have been no civil penalties or criminal prosecution under Tennessee's Athlete Agent Reform Act of 2011, there are two active private civil litigations there.
In Mississippi, officials updated the agent law a little more than two years ago to broaden what can be considered compensation and allowing the Secretary of State's office the power to conduct background checks on anyone applying to become an agent. Violators can be punished with up to two years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
"We spent hours with the NCAA, all the universities in Mississippi and with the athlete agents themselves so we could address these issues," Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann said last month. "I think the result is a much clearer path for us to regulate athlete agents."
Hosemann's comments came after Yahoo Sports reported that five Southeastern Conference players from Alabama, Tennessee and Mississippi State received improper benefits during their college careers.
Woodall said there will be a "learning curve" in prosecuting his cases. He's deputizing three attorneys — two from the Secretary of State's office and one from the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys — to serve as assistant district attorneys in a case involving "hundreds to thousands" of pages of material such as bank, financial and phone records.
"You always want to get it right," Woodall said. "We will probably make some mistakes along the way. We may have to go back and redo some things, you never know. But compared to a homicide case, compared to a sexual assault case, there is no pressure."