PUBLISHED:July 29, 2010

Going the extra mile

In his role as chair of the Duke Student-Athlete Counseling Committee, Professor Paul Haagen has advised members of all four men’s basketball national championship teams including, most recently, Jon Scheyer and Brian Zoubek.

However, Haagen’s responsibilities extend beyond the hardwood. During more than 20 years as committee chair he has advised golfers, members of the soccer, baseball, and football teams, and even an aspiring NASCAR driver.

[View a photo gallery of athletes mentioned in this story.]

No matter the sport, Haagen has enjoyed the same reward: “Seeing our athletes succeed. Seeing them take the opportunity and optimize it. That’s the payoff,” he says.

Universities are not required to have a counseling committee. Participation with the committee is voluntary for athletes, who can receive input on their professional sports prospects as well as guidance through the often thorny process of selecting an agent.

“The hope of the committee is that it can do three different sorts of things,” Haagen says. “First, we want to make it possible for athletes to get genuinely independent advice on their options and prospects. Next, we want to avoid a situation where they go directly to agents, which has the potential to compromise their eligibility. Finally, we want to get them thinking more broadly about what they’re trying to accomplish and to develop plans for doing that.

“You’re just trying to provide counseling,” he continues. “You’re going over agreements, you’re helping them to think through, the way any good lawyer would, the structuring of representation and the kinds of issues that they’re facing.”

Haagen organizes interviews with prospective agents and prepares athletes for these interactions. He does not, however, offer unsolicited advice on which agent to choose. Haagen says he wants athletes to be mindful of how they can best position themselves to be successful during their playing careers and in subsequent professional endeavors.

“What I’m always the most interested in doing is just making sure they have good information and a decent structure,” he says. “You just try to make certain that they have as good information as they can, and you try to do what you can to develop a baseline of trust.”

Haagen, a former college athlete himself, was appointed to chair the Student-Athlete Counseling Committee in 1989. He succeeded Professor John Weistart in the position. He has served on the committee with Chris Kennedy, Duke’s deputy director of athletics, throughout his tenure. Like Haagen, Kennedy says the reward of his work is seeing Duke athletes succeed.

“These kids are about to go into a world where it’s every man for himself,” Kennedy says. “We feel we are at the last stages of a phase of life where the students really have someone else interested in their welfare. Our only interest is to help a kid make a good decision.”

Kennedy says knowledge is the most important commodity for the athletes he counsels and credits Haagen with sharing useful information about topics including agents, professional leagues, and salary structures.

“Paul is very intelligent and he adds to that a sincere interest in doing the right thing for the kids,” Kennedy says. “Paul knows that world, and he’s really good at explaining it to players and their families. He’s not overbearing. He’s not there to show them how smart he is. He’s very effective in dealing with them.”

Initially, Haagen says he focused on listening, learning, and building trust with athletes and coaches throughout the university. “I was trying to be a counselor-lawyer, which meant I had to learn the industry in order to counsel.”

As his expertise grew, so too did the challenge, in part because more athletes started leaving college early in order to pursue their professional ambitions.

“When I first started doing it, it was dramatically easier in the sense that most people stayed in school all four years,” Haagen says. “You were dealing with more mature people, and you were dealing with much more finished products. People were all on a level, comparable field. You’re now dealing with a situation in which so much emphasis is on potential that players start to think of themselves as failures if they don’t leave early.”

Nevertheless, the passage of time has enabled Haagen to establish credibility and has made him more efficient. “I’m a lot quicker at learning what’s at stake,” he says.

Haagen has developed expertise in contracts, the social history of law, and law and sports; he has a forthcoming book that examines the latter topic. He teaches a Sport and the Law course and serves as director of the Duke Center for Sports and the Law. His experiences advising athletes past and present, from the most well-known to less-recognized competitors, demonstrate how he has learned firsthand about professional athletics and used his accumulated knowledge to benefit Duke athletes.

From mentorship to friendship

Harrison Till came to Haagen in 2002 as an 18-year-old freshman walk-on football player and track-and-field athlete seeking counsel on which classes to take as well as life after college. He was immediately impressed by Haagen.

“He’s a great adviser,” Till says. “From the second I met him I knew I was meeting someone who is so humble, down to Earth, and grounded. He was so easy to work with. It was very refreshing.”

Haagen’s advising role grew larger three years later when Till completed his Duke degree early and began exploring the possibility of continuing his football career at another university. Till sought Haagen’s advice as he contemplated a transfer, which would allow him to retain his remaining eligibility provided he was pursuing a master’s degree not offered at Duke.

After the pair weighed the available options Till enrolled at Ohio State University, where his parents met as students. Till played on two Big Ten Championship teams at Ohio State and participated in the Fiesta Bowl as well as the national championship game. He welcomed Haagen as a guest at one of his home games.

“It meant the world to me. There was nothing in it for him except watching a student learn and grow,” Till says. “He invested so much time and energy that he didn’t have to do.”

Till graduated from Ohio State in 2007 with a master’s degree in business, labor, and human resources management. The 26-year-old currently works in Merrill Lynch’s asset protection group and plans to pursue a law degree. He maintains a relationship with Haagen and notes of his mentor, “he still answers all of my emails within an hour.” The pair visit Elmo’s Diner for breakfast whenever Till is in Durham.

“He’s just an unbelievable guy. I’m fortunate to be mentored by Professor Haagen. Very few people can say I have a mentor from Duke and he’s not an agent,” Till says. “He advises people to hire the best person for their specific situation. He wants you to make the best decision possible and is focused solely on the best interests of the athlete.”

“He was willing to help in any way,” Till continues. “He didn’t care if you were Grant Hill or an 18 year old walking on to the football team at Duke."

Information without influence

The Detroit Pistons selected Grant Hill with the third pick in the 1994 NBA Draft after a Duke career that included NCAA championships in 1991 and 1992 and an appearance in the 1994 national title game.

Tommy Amaker, a Duke assistant basketball coach at the time, called the Hills after the 1994 Final Four and informed them about the Student-Athlete Counseling Committee. The family brought trusted friends and associates to meetings with prospective agents and benefited from Haagen’s counsel along the way. Haagen represented Hill on a pro bono basis for the better part of a month as the player decided on full-time representation.

“You need someone who’s extremely knowledgeable of the law; interested in athletics, but not from a financial aspect; dedicated to the institution; and thoughtful in the process but doesn’t attempt to influence the process,” says Grant’s mother, Janet Hill. “Paul is very knowledgeable about sports and legal issues related to sports.”

Janet attended Wellesley and in 1981 founded the Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm Alexander & Associates with Clifford Alexander. Her husband, Calvin, attended Yale and played professional football in the NFL. Nevertheless, she says nothing in the couple’s background prepared them for the process their son faced when he entered the NBA Draft.

“There isn’t a parent of a high school student or college athlete who knows enough about the NBA to know this process,” says Hill, who serves on the Duke University Board of Trustees. “It’s a magnificent process and it’s proven to be more and more magnificent as it’s gone along.”

A review of Grant Hill’s NBA player contracts and many endorsement deals with companies including Sprite, McDonalds, and GMC Trucks suggests he has signed in excess of 30 contracts and earned more than $250 million during his 16-year playing career. His mother says the Student-Athlete Counseling Committee was of “tremendous value” and that everyone involved allowed Grant to make his own decisions.

“Grant grew up fast. That’s a maturity thing,” she says. “He’s extremely well-advised.”

On a different track

Paul Harraka came to the Student-Athlete Counseling Committee seeking advice on current professional contracts rather than future ones. Harraka, a rising junior, races in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West and is a member of NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity Program, which is targeted toward minority and female drivers.

Harraka says he decided to utilize the committee due to the changing nature of motorsports. Sponsors once signed agreements with racing teams who then hired the drivers. These days, Harraka says, drivers are approaching teams having already lined up their own sponsorship, which has forced him to build a firm business model. That model includes marketing representation to develop sponsorship and promotional partnerships, as well legal representation to handle contract matters.

“His issues are clearly different,” Haagen says. “He’s in the process of selling interest in himself in order to get the capital to jump-start his racing career, and so he’s being advised by people from the Duke board, and you try and facilitate those types of arrangements.”

Haagen helped Harraka locate representation that could work cooperatively with his marketing group and that had no motorsports connections in order to avoid potential conflicts of interest.

“Professor Haagen has been an invaluable resource for me as I climb the ladder in NASCAR racing,” Harraka says. “He is one of the most accessible professors I have ever encountered, always willing to schedule a meeting or answer an e-mailed question. He helped me distill what I needed and what I didn’t need.”

“I would certainly recommend him to any friends I had who were going pro,” Harraka says. “He was interested in what I want to accomplish and applied what he knew from other sports to motorsports. His in-depth knowledge of the business of sport and his legal understanding produce a combination that has helped me best position myself as I move into the professional ranks of racing.”

“I’m a better athlete, a better positioned sports businessman, and a more intelligent individual because of Professor Haagen,” Harraka says.