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“Uncle Nate” Still Has Work to Do to “Outsmart” NCAA

Wright Thompson, author of one of the definitive Johnny Manziel profiles, has an excellent piece about Nate Fitch, Johnny Manziel’s friend. Thompson’s article is the specific example to Bruce Feldman’s more general point about how individuals with less than pure motives worm their way into the lives of college athletes. Thompson paints a picture of an amateur William Wesley, someone who is always close to the action, working for free in an undefined role with a unsure endgame.

In the article, Thompson makes the argument that the relationship between Manziel and Fitch isolates Manziel from the NCAA in two ways. First, that Fitch has a “preexisting relationship” with Manziel which shields both of them from the extra benefit rules. And second, that Fitch is beyond the reach of NCAA investigators and their non-existent subpoena power.

The NCAA can bust up the relationship between Fitch and Manziel in a number of ways. One of the most cited interpretations in NCAA history defines preexisting relationship. It includes a four-part test about who is considered to have a preexisting relationship with a student-athlete:

  1. Did the relationship between the athlete (or the athlete’s parents) and the individual providing the benefit(s) develop as a result of the athlete’s participation in athletics or notoriety related thereto?
  2. Did the relationship between the athlete (or the athlete’s parents) and the individual providing the benefit(s) predate the athlete’s status as a prospective student-athlete?
  3. Did the relationship between the athlete (or the athlete’s parents) and the individual providing the benefit(s) predate the athlete’s status achieved as a result of his or her athletics ability or reputation?
  4. Was the pattern of benefits provided by the individual to the athlete (or the athlete’s parents) prior to the athlete attaining notoriety as a skilled athlete similar in nature to those provided after attaining such stature?

To have a preexisting relationship, to have to answer no to Part 1 and yes to Parts 2–4. Because we are not yet privy to Manziel and Fitch’s high school relationship, let’s assume they can clear Part 1 and 3. Part 4 might be an issue if the relationship and benefits provided by Fitch to Manziel fundamentally changed when he enrolled in college or over the last year. But most importantly, if Fitch and Manziel became friends in high school, Part 2 says it does not meet the requirements of a preexisting relationship.

Furthermore, if Fitch is now operating in a way that causes him to be classified as an agent, that would also mean he loses the benefit of any long-term relationship he has with Manziel. This is from the rationale to Proposal 2011–23, which created the new, expanded definition of an agent, a.k.a. the “Cam Newton rule”:

This proposal is not intended to include parents or legal guardians, athletics department staff members, former teammates or those individuals who have the best interest of a prospective student-athlete or student-athlete in mind in providing assistance or information, provided they do not intend to receive a financial gain for their assistance. (emphasis added)

And the type of activities that trigger the agent definition include anyone who:

Represents or attempts to represent an individual for the purpose of marketing his or her athletics ability or reputation for financial gain. (emphasis added)

Now contrary to popular belief, that does not mean that the discussion is over and Manziel is guilty of a violation. The relationship and conduct between him and Fitch would still need to be examined to see if one of the agent violations existed: that Manziel received any benefit from Fitch or that he had an agreement with Fitch of any kind to represent him. But it would mean the relationship between Fitch and Manziel will receive no special deference from the NCAA.

Thompson’s second point, that Fitch is beyond the reach of NCAA investigators is probably true. The ethical conduct rules do not include friends or even the family of a student-athlete. But there is a catch. If Manziel were an incoming prospect, the Eligibility Center may refuse to clear him over an outstanding amateurism issue until it got records it requested from people like his parents or friends who may not be covered by the ethical conduct rules. As an enrolled student-athlete, the enforcement staff may refuse to close the investigation and release the cloud over Manziel’s eligibility until they get information from Fitch.

Which means this might come down as much to how well Fitch and Manziel covered any tracks as it does to who blinks first. As the season approaches, does the NCAA throw in the towel, does Texas A&M agree to hold Manziel out, or does Fitch start cooperating? The cliff everyone is headed for is three weeks and two days away, the drama is in seeing who is willing to go over it.

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