To Alabama coach Nick Saban, unscrupulous sports agents are like "pimps" or "bootleggers." Florida coach Urban Meyer likens them to "predators" who have become "epidemic."
Less dramatically but with no less trepidation, Mizzou coach Gary Pinkel calls the potential for agent interference "a big concern — it always has been."
Just never this publicly before.
"It's been there, but now it's magnified," said Ben Dogra of Clayton-based CAA Football, who with Tom Condon represents, among others, Rams' first-round pick Sam Bradford.
The perception and the disadvantage improper contacts create are a problem for Dogra, who believes a clean-up would benefit many reputable agents — a point reinforced by the likes of Saban and Texas coach Mack Brown.
"We've got 52 kids, I think, right now in the NFL," Brown said last month at Big 12 media days. "There's a lot of great agents that help those kids. So to say all the agents are breaking rules is unfair."
Yet the issue is simmering on the front burner in the wake of USC being slammed by the NCAA for Reggie Bush's involvement with agents and in the burgeoning form of NCAA investigations at Alabama, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina.
So absorbed in the matter is Saban, an infamous control freak even in a profession of them, that he took time last week amid Alabama's preseason training camp to spearhead a conference call with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to address it. Others on the call were Meyer, Ohio State's Jim Tressel, Oklahoma's Bob Stoops, Texas' Mack Brown, the NFL Players Association and several athletics directors and agents.
"We're all trying to put our heads together to figure out what we can do to level the playing field so that everybody that's in the agent community — which some of them are very professional — has the same opportunity to recruit players and that the bootleggers out there are guys that get punished and penalized," Saban told reporters after the call.
That would be in direct contrast to how it works now.
Among the reasons it's such an emotional issue for coaches is that an agent — most often so-called 'street agents" or "runners" — need tempt only a single player to accept gifts to bring shame and sanctions upon any given program.
All of the disgrace, then, with only so much of the control.
"For a coach to figure out who a runner is at a nightclub at 2:30 in the morning, I've been asleep for four hours," Meyer said at Southeastern Conference media days last month. "The coaches can't do that. I've tried to. At Florida, we have security for one reason. … It's for people we don't want around our players."
To what degree coaches bear responsibility is unclear. Most emphasize how hard they work to educate players and their families on the issues.
MU, Pinkel said, has an annual agent day for just that and talks about the matter frequently. Saban and Meyer each stressed the time they spend on that and other player education issues, and Brown said Texas spends part of 12 days a year on it.
"If we got a call today and one of ours was involved with an agent, I would be disappointed and I would be shocked," Brown said during Big 12 media days in July. "The responsibility is on me. It's on our staff. It's on the compliance department. It's on the agent.
"But it's also on the young man. If a young man is going to sign at 21 years old for $20 million, he knows he shouldn't be going to parties or flying or taking cars" provided by agents before eligibility has expired.
The apparent proliferation of abuses is the byproduct of a handful of developments over the last few years, ranging from increased financial incentives to both the scrutiny and accessibility afforded by modern technology to rules changes.
"A couple years ago, they started making it legal for players to talk to agents, and that's a dangerous one," Brown said. "You know, it's hard to have a relationship with someone if you don't talk to them. (If) you want to sit down and talk to them and to go out to lunch, what did you pay for? What did he pay for? And then you've got to have receipts.
"If somebody takes a picture of you and an agent downtown, it gets gray already."
The objects of NCAA interest allegedly have been substantially more egregious. Bush, for instance, accepted tens of thousands in various forms of gifts, leading to USC vacating all its victories in 2005, losing 30 scholarships over three years and a two-year postseason ban.
Along with the NCAA, Alabama and South Carolina are investigating whether and by what means players were taken to a party in Miami's South Beach. The NCAA and Florida are exploring whether former Florida offensive lineman Maurkice Pouncey accepted a gift of $100,000 from an agent last December between the SEC title game and the Sugar Bowl.
"If something happened, he should be punished severely," Meyer said. "If it didn't happen, then that's nonsense."
But with Pouncey already gone to the NFL, there is no means to make him accountable for his actions.
While Bush has to live with the humiliation of USC returning his Heisman Trophy and banning him from campus, he faces no penalty in terms of wages lost or suspension in the NFL.
Meanwhile, Florida could be slapped for the actions of Pouncey and, of course, the agent who lured him in.
If coaches have their way, some disincentives for such acts will be forthcoming. Dogra senses a groundswell in that direction as awareness of the problems has intensified.
Fourty-two states — including Missouri — have passed laws to keep agents ethical. While an AP study noted that the laws are rarely enforced, they would seem to provide a structure to tap into if others get more energized.
From the perspective of many, that means not only another look from the NCAA at how it handles the issue but also from Goodell and the NFLPA.
"I think if an agent does anything to affect the eligibility of a college football player, his license ought to be suspended for a year," Saban said last month. "That's the only way we're going to stop what's happening out there, because it's ridiculous and it's entrapment of young people at a very difficult time in their life."
Then again, last week in Tuscaloosa, Saban even suggested the NFL consider punishing players in certain situations.
"Is it not conduct detrimental if a player does the wrong thing in college and gets suspended for his senior season just so he can play in the NFL?" he said.
Whatever the answer might be, Pinkel hopes the focus on it now means more clarity ahead.
"Maybe light shining on the subject a little bit, maybe that's good, maybe that's positive," he said at Big 12 media days.
Trouble is …
"There's a lot of money involved, ultimately," he said, "and people with greed do a lot of things … that aren't the wisest."