BOSTON -- The agent says go.
The coach says stay.
And college athletes are left wondering what to do.
At Boston College, Warren Zola tries to take some of the burden off athletes who are graduating from amateur to pro sports by helping them navigate the unfamiliar, often tricky territory between them. The chair of the school's professional sports advisory panel, he helps BC players with everything from setting up predraft workouts to interviewing agents to the toughest decision of all: whether to leave school early and go pro.
"I continue to be amazed that schools who want this caliber of talent continually decide or default into not (helping) them reach this goal," said Zola, a dean at the BC business school who runs the advisory panel at Boston College and advocates -- in law review articles, the Huffington Post and a scheduled Congressional briefing -- for reform in college athletics.
"Every school is out there trying to recruit talent that can compete at the professional level, yet very few of them care enough to assist the student athlete through that transition process," he said. "It illustrates that you care about their success as an individual, not as a part of a university team. You would think that even if it was solely to help them in recruiting, they would do this."
The NCAA rulebook is notoriously cranky, with the potential on every page for violations that can endanger an athlete's eligibility; the pro leagues have their own rules regarding draft status that vary from sport to sport and change with every new collective bargaining agreement. There is also a thicket of conflicting advice: Agents, parents, friends, financial planners and coaches might all have something to say about what's best for the athlete.
To help navigate the territory between them -- the job an agent would do, if NCAA athletes were allowed to have agents -- schools are allowed to form panels of independent advisers. Apart from the athletic department and with enough distance from the coaches that want every star to stay, the advisers sort through the pitches from agents and feedback from pro scouts to help the athlete and his parents make informed decisions.
"I went into it like most people, having no idea what happens," said Indianapolis Colts offensive lineman Anthony Castonzo, a first-round draft pick from Boston College. "You could tell just from talking to fellow rookies that a lot of guys aren't really up to speed on things. It's good to have those resources, and Warren was one of them."
Still, few schools offer the service, in part because the requirement that the majority of the panelists come from outside the athletic department leaves them with no obvious source of funding inside the school.
"It's never a priority until it's too late," said Zola, who estimated that he has worked with about 100 athletes in football, baseball, ice hockey, track and field and men's and women's basketball and soccer. "I think it's served our university tremendously well. The school supports its student athletes by providing this service."
An NCAA spokesman said the organization did not keep track of the schools that have advisory panels, which have been permitted by its bylaws since 1984. A check of ACC schools showed that fewer than half do, with Boston College and Duke the most active in providing advice.
"I would say that we are way out at the extreme end," said Paul Haagen, a professor and dean at Duke's law school who heads the university's advisory panel. "I'm really not aware of anybody who's as far out as we are."
Maryland also has a panel, but other schools have informal arrangements where independent advice is provided when needed. At Wake Forest, for example, the school provides all of the same services without an official advisory panel, spokesman Steven Shutt said.
"We are fortunate to have professors in the law school with professional sports contacts and other folks on campus whose services we utilize to achieve the same result," he said.
Agent Tom Condon, who represents about 50 current NFL players, said panels are becoming more prevalent as schools realize the danger of allowing their athletes to go through the process on their own. He estimated that about 25 percent of the schools now have them.
"They understand that something going wrong in the (agent) recruiting process can ultimately affect the school in a negative way," Condon said. "The athletes may understand the rules, but it's an exciting time for them. It gets to be a difficult situation for the players, and especially for the school because they aren't aware of what's going on."
A lawyer whose real job is assistant dean at BC's Carroll School of Management, Zola has run the school's advisory panel since 2005 (though he has done the work more informally since 1992).
Castonzo's father, Bill, said the help was invaluable as his son finished up his senior season at BC and the calls from agents and financial planners began to pour in.
"Anthony wanted to concentrate on football, and I concentrated on dealing with all the outside stuff," said Bill Castonzo, who ran his own food brokerage business. "I have some experience negotiating, but when it came to the nitty gritty of NCAA rules, I had no clue."
Zola sat in on meetings when agents pitched the Castonzos, helped them decide whether to buy disability insurance and kept them on the right side of the NCAA rules.
"When you walk into something like that and you don't have any previous knowledge or experience in dealing with it, it's always good to have someone who's been through it who can give you sound advice and lead you in the right direction," Bill Castonzo said. "I've got to tell you: that road would have been a lot more rocky without Warren."
Haagen works mostly with basketball players -- it's Duke, after all -- but in his role as an adviser since 1989 he has also worked with soccer, lacrosse, baseball and football players and even one student who is trying to break into NASCAR. Even within a sport, though, there is a wide range of needs, from the sure-fire lottery pick to the player who just wants to find a team in Europe.
And then there are the differences in personalities.
"When you have someone like Shane Battier or Grant Hill, extremely sophisticated people, what you do is engage them. ... At its fullest, it's, 'How do you think about yourself in the world?"' Haagen said. "Some of them just have no patience or attention span. With them, what you're trying to do is get them hooked up with professional help that will be responsive to their needs."
The goal of the counseling panel is to provide independent advice; the NCAA bylaw that permits the panels requires the majority to be from outside the athletics department.
Haagen has said he no longer finds coaches who put the program ahead of the players' best interests by pressuring them to stay in school. For one thing, it can help a program to be known as a steppingstone to the pros; for another, he said, "there's now the awareness that if the kids ever got that sense they'd stop listening to you."
"There are always conflicts of interest," said Haagen, who added that he is largely immune because of his position in the law school and his experience guiding as many as 50 athletes through the process. "You absolutely are dependent on the coaches for information and encouraging the kids to come see you. ... If the coaches are not buying in, you're really quite ineffective."
Sitting in his office at BC's business school, with the football cards of a dozen players he's helped pinned to a bulletin board behind him, Zola noted that he answers to BC president William Leahy -- a Jesuit priest -- not the athletic department. There's no benefit in twisting a player's arm to get him to stay if he's clearly better off leaving, Zola said.
"I think that serves a university better than having someone stay on campus if it's not the right situation. That said, my default is always, 'Stay in school,"' he said. "To do this properly, you need the support of the athletic department -- both the athletic director and the coaches, and I think I have that."
Zola said he tries to build relationships with the athletes as soon as possible, and for baseball players -- who can be drafted out of high school -- that means contacting them after they commit to BC but even before they arrive on campus. He meets with other athletes as a team or individually to let them know how he can help, his role increasing as they get closer to the real world.
Matt Tennant, a BC center who was drafted by the New Orleans Saints, said Zola helped with background on the potential agents, filtering out the bad ones. (Zola said he only eliminates agents with hard evidence -- a criminal conviction, for example.) "They just do a very thorough job of going through and making sure there's nothing wrong with the agency," Tennant said.
Condon said most agents welcome the presence of an experienced, independent monitor like Zola.
"We view him as a positive, because he's going to ask the right questions," Condon said. "He's going to talk about the things that are meaningful as opposed to the fluff that's going to wind up not making any difference."