CLEARWATER, Fla. – Even after a day in which the college baseball world used the Phillies organization as its speed bag, it is important to remember that the real villains in amateur athletics are the Division I presidents.
They serve as de facto commissioners of a sports enterprise that exploits a vulnerable workforce in order to generate billions of dollars of revenue at the expense of its universities’ academic missions. That said, whenever one finds himself on the side of the NCAA in a discussion about ethics, it is a pretty good indication he should consider what, exactly, it is he stands for.
We don’t know much about how the Phillies wound up costing Oregon State pitcher Ben Wetzler a yet-to-be-determined portion of his senior season, mostly because the Phillies refused to address the situation Thursday.
As is often the case with this organization, there are two issues here: One, what actually happened; two, how the club handled the fallout from what actually happened. In fact, as of Thursday night, the Phillies had yet to handle anything, allowing an entire news cycle to pass without any attempt to blunt the repeated blows they were taking for their decision, reported by Baseball America, to tattle on Wetzler and Washington State’s Jason Monda after both players opted to return to school for their senior seasons instead of signing contracts to play pro ball.
Perhaps they have reason to feel justified in their decision. Perhaps the decision was a rash one that they wish they could take back. A lawyer hired by Oregon State to work on the case declined to comment. Whatever the reality of the situation, the perception is what matters, and the perception in the amateur baseball community is that the Phillies sandbagged Wetzler, a fifth-round pick, and Monda, a sixth-round pick, by reporting them to the NCAA for using a financial adviser or agent during negotiations.
To somebody unfamiliar with college baseball, the Phillies’ alleged actions might sound reasonable. In order to understand the outrage, you must first understand the depravity of the system that MLB employs and the NCAA endorses for its draft. For starters, the draft takes place in the middle of the NCAA Super Regionals, college baseball’s equivalent of the Sweet 16. The Phillies selected Wetzler, a lefty pitcher, the same day he and his Oregon State teammates opened their best-of-three series against Kansas State.
Second, NCAA bylaws state that a player becomes ineligible once he “has agreed (orally or in writing) to be represented by an agent for the purpose of marketing his or her athletics ability or reputation in that sport.”
As one current player on the Phillies’ roster noted Thursday, that means asking a kid without a college degree to negotiate a fair contract with a professional sports franchise, a contract that, once signed, will strip him of the most leverage he will have until he becomes arbitration-eligible, which could be up to nine years from that date.
Fortunately, for the most part, all parties involved ignore the spirit of the rule. Potential draftees enlist the help of “advisers,” who are allowed to “read” over contract proposals and “advise” them on the best course of action, but who are not supposed to carry on actual negotiations with clubs. You know, wink-wink, nudge-nudge type stuff. It works because clubs do not have much incentive to report NCAA infractions.
As one American League scouting director told Baseball America back in 2008: “(The NCAA) expects us to call and say, ‘Hey, we had a deal with this kid’s adviser, but he went back into school?’ Come on, we’re not going to do that. Why do we care? You enforce it, or do something once you get ahold of it. It’s not that hard to pick up a paper – you can read about it. The college coaches know these guys are represented. You’d think the NCAA would get more involved if they care, because we’re playing a charade here if we think these players are representing themselves, and it’s just family advisers after they get drafted. That’s kind of a joke.”
Well, the Phillies, or somebody employed by them, cared. A reporter for Baseball America called the club’s actions “unprecedented” in an interview on Phildelphia sports radio Thursday afternoon. The NCAA already has cleared Monda to participate this season. Wetzler remains sidelined.
The long-term ramifications might not be huge, but one agent told the Philadelphia Daily News on Thursday that the situation would definitely affect the way he and his colleagues – and their “clients” – deal with the club during the run-up to the draft. The Phillies could find it much harder to appraise a player’s signability, for instance. A program like Oregon State also could restrict the Phillies from predraft access to players.
More than anything, the situation underscores the ridiculous extent to which amateur athletes are disenfranchised by the alleged academics who serve as their overlords. Professional sports franchises such as the Phillies should not have the luxury of allowing institutions of higher learning to develop their players for three years free of charge. Until the corrupting influence of big-time athletics is removed from college campuses and the business of player development shifts to proprietary institutions that do not profit from the illusion of amateurism, the ground will continue to fertilize boondoggles like the one that Thursday wrapped the Phillies in its stench.