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Rodney Guillory. It's a name we have learned in recent days, thanks to Kelly Naqi and her Outside the Lines investigation.
Guillory, we have learned, has reportedly been acting like a runner.
OK, you say, fine.
But what exactly is a runner? How big a part of basketball are such people? What are the rules of being a runner. Does anyone get hurt in the process?
TrueHoop convened a roundtable of experts to talk about it. The second part of the conversation will be published tomorrow.
First, meet the participants:
James Tanner is a lawyer and agent working for Washington D.C.'s Williams & Connolly. Tanner represents Josh Childress, Marvin Williams, Brandan Wright, Zaza Pachulia, Morris Almond, DeVon Hardin. Together with Lon Babby he represents Grant Hill, Tim Duncan, Ray Allen, Shane Battier, Bruce Bowen, Andre Miller, and others. Tanner has a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, B.A. and a J.D. from the University of Chicago.
David Thorpe is an NBA analyst for ESPN.com and the executive director of the Pro Training Center at the IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla., where he oversees the player development program for NBA and college players. Thorpe has coached for more than two decades, in recent years focusing on professional clients who have included Kevin Martin, Udonis Haslem, Luol Deng, Tyrus Thomas, Daniel Santiago, Jared Jeffries, Kyrylo Fesenko, and others.
Jason Levien is an attorney, agent, and founder of Levien Sports Representation. He represents players including Kevin Martin, Kyrylo Fesenko, Orien Greene, Loren Woods, Courtney Lee, and Pat Calathes. A graduate of Pomona College, where he was a member of the basketball team, Levien served as an editor of the Michigan Law Review while earning his law degree and master's in public policy from the University of Michigan. Levien has had faculty appointments at the University of Michigan and Harvard Law School.
Marc Isenberg is the author of "Money Players: A Guide to Success in Sports, Business & Life for Current and Future Pro Athletes." He also co-authored "The Student-Athlete Survival Guide," a book that helps athletes make the transition from high school to college and succeed once there.
(Note: Levien joined the conversation in progress.)
After the Outside the Lines investigation of O.J. Mayo and BDA Sports and everything, it prompted just a flood of phone calls here at my office where I talked to so many agents, so many people involved in the business who took the opportunity of the O.J. story to talk about recruiting in general.
It seems to me that nobody really likes it the way it is now and everybody has ideas about how it might be better. A lot of people seem to be concerned that the quality of the representation, i.e., the merit of your agent, isn't a big consideration in how a lot of players choose their agents. So I thought it would be good to investigate some of those issues a little bit with people who know a lot about the business.
So you three are some of the people I know who know the most about it, so I thought it would be great talking together. So thanks for joining me.
Maybe I can start with you, Jim. When you heard about this O.J. Mayo thing, you don't need to talk about that case specifically if you don't want to, the story as reported by ESPN is that Rodney Guillory was acting as a runner in cahoots with an agent. Do you think a high percentage of players are involved with runners or a high percentage of NBA recruiting happens with the help of runners?
James Tanner: I would say that I think runners are prevalent in the industry in terms of recruiting clients for various agents and agencies. What percentage of players are actually influenced by those runners, I wouldn't know. But I certainly think they have a presence and agents rely on them to help introduce them to various athletes and their families to establish relationships with those athletes and their families and to speak on their behalf.
We at Williams & Connolly do not use runners and we recruit very differently than I think most agencies do, but I certainly think they're out there.
Is that a problem? I know it's illegal in many states. You can sort of guess a lot of problems that might result from using runners.
David Thorpe: Don't we first need to define 'runners?' Because just to infer that what happened potentially or allegedly in California means that agents spend lots of money on runners to go recruit for them, it's really unfair. I'm not at all absolving anyone of that. Obviously there's guilt, Jim and I and Marc and others, we probably all know of instances.
My only thing was, we all could maybe speak to it at different levels. Again, you've got guys that are 20, 21, young guys up to 40s or so, that just want to get their foot in the door. And because they may have a relationship with a player that could potentially be an NBA player, they're going to be targeted potentially by an agent and no money exchanges hands. Maybe buys him a dinner or two just to get to know him. And that guy is just so happy to be able to connect his player/friend to the agent, maybe the value of that relationship amounts to $50. That's different than what the situation is in California, which happens as well. You have two different spectrums on the runner side. Does that make any sense what I just said? Do you follow that?
Sure. I feel like there's also probably two different setups for how you could have a runner, right? There could be somebody who has a pre-existing relationship with a player who might be kind of coordinating their agent selection process, right? Or there could be somebody who has a longer term relationship with the agent and then tries to get close to the player.
James Tanner: The latter is what I was referring to when I talk about a runner. A runner is somebody who is on an agent's payroll whose job is to recruit for that agent. So to establish a relationship with a player or a family member or a friend of player, whoever it may be, that's what I consider to be a runner.
I have seen the other situation where you have somebody who's already close to the athlete and the agent tries to establish a relationship with that person, ultimately trying to recruit the athlete. So I think that's a different category.
David Thorpe: That's exactly what I was hoping to get defined, Jim. I just wanted to make sure I was speaking clearly. So I agree with Jim. To me the runner is in the employ of the agency, which is separate from the one, the guy or the girl, that knows the player and hopes to one day work for the agency. So is literally used by the agent in some cases to be able to get that player. So now at least we have our terms d
efined a little bit.
Marc Isenberg: To take it further, a lot of these relationships aren't properly defined when the relationships are first established. So what ends up happening is, and I don't want to talk specifically about the big case that brings us all here together right now, but the AAU programs, the mentorship, whatever percentage we want to assign that says, you know, that most of these relationships are holistic and proper in terms of providing guidance, father figure-type relationships. At some point, you can sort of get an idea that some player has potential market value, the relationships have at least an increased chance of changing to include the agents and all the relationships that that business brings in.
So, I don't think it's a situation where people are sort of saying, my job description, my job title is I'm a runner. I think that they tend to emerge, that agents tend to identify with those people that can be the circle of influence that are so necessary in influencing the decision to sign with a particular agent.
David Thorpe: Right. But Jim is right in that there are, without question, any way you want to define runner, is the person in the employ of an agent or agency whose sole job is to befriend players and their parents, in some cases if they can't get access to the player, or some other avenue to get right to the player, to basically convince that player or the family, about the agency that he's working for.
Well what about the AAU coach, right? We hear this story all the time. I actually heard it just this morning. If you are -- you know, if an agent may be recruiting a player, talking to a player, et cetera, they might hear from an AAU coach or somebody else, some event promoter, whoever, who then wants basically money to be in player's ear and recommend that agent.
David Thorpe: Right. That's why I brought it up, Henry. That's why I was trying to get the definition because that's exactly what ends up happening, is the AAU coach, and that's also a loose term, but the person affiliated with the player in the AAU program, whether the head coach or assistant, the sneaker guy or the jersey guy, if he has access to the player, the agency approaches him, they work out some kind of deal, and now it's up to him to try to deliver that player to the agent in some respect. It might be just to deliver a dinner together, then it's up to the agent to close the deal. That certainly is an ordinary situation that occurs in basketball today.
And why is that bad?
James Tanner: I would say it's bad to the extent that the AAU coach does not have the player's best interest at heart. I would caution us against painting all AAU coaches with the same brush because I think there are probably quite a few very good AAU coaches out there that have their player's best interest in mind. My son started playing AAU basketball recently and I think most of the people I met have been great people that are there for the right reasons.
I think it does become dangerous, though, when the AAU coach is doing it for his own interest as opposed to the player's best interest. So he's not helping the player make a decision on the merits and he's only steering the player based on what he's going to receive in return. That's when it's bad.
David Thorpe: I would take that a step further. There's just no accountability for a lot of these situations. And I don't know that you can always guarantee that you can get it, but it's always nice to have some kind of accountability. If you steer, for selfish reasons, and it ends up hurting the player, as the person that did the steering, the AAU-connected runner, he has no consequences to face. He cuts the people in, moves on, tries to get the next guy, the next guy, maybe he just doesn't do it with that agency because they failed the first time. There's obviously no oversight to it.
There's also a situation and, guys, I'm dealing with players on a daily basis and I'm not an agent. Right now I have 12 players on campus, I have 10 players on campus. I think we have six different agents representing them. So I see all kinds and I hear the players' perspectives on everything. And it's a real situation where the players are blind and a lot of the so-called runners that we're talking about, whether they're in the employ of the agents/agency, or on the AAU side, those guys are blind, too. They don't really understand the business.
Promising draft position or promising -- one of my favorite ones are shoe deals. Henry, you obviously know that pretty well. Jim does. It's not so easy to land any kind of shoe deal, much less a lucrative deal. I'll talk to players who are lucky to be second-round picks and they're telling me they're going to choose one agent over another because of the potential for shoe deal. When I ask them where did you hear that from, almost invariably it's not from the agent's mouth themselves as much as it is somebody connected to the agent, which is the runner or the AAU guy involved that's kind of convinced them of this great shoe deal possibility for a guy that is going to be hoping to be drafted No. 45. It just doesn't exist.
Marc Isenberg: I think what we're learning now, and it's sort of that common refrain when I talk to NBA guys who are in their mid 20s, late 20s: If I only knew then what I know now. It's very difficult a 16-, 17-year-old going through the first recruiting process, and then a short time later when he's been recruited by agents, to discern the facts from this, understanding how the business really works, because they're relying so much on, you know, what these people are telling them.
So, if an agent says, and once more with conviction, that I can affect where you're selected in the draft because I've got these special relationships, I have got independent relationships with general managers ... just use common sense. There are no favors in this business. It's all about winning. I mean, just because you have a strong relationship because of other players that you might represent, there's nothing that Jim Tanner or some other agent can do to ultimately affect draft outcome. They can certainly help with the training, the workouts, train them in the best possible light. I would attribute most where they're going to be selected to their own efforts. And I think that's sort of self-preservation in the agent business to oversell and hype their roles.
James Tanner: I think the problem, though, you know, agents overselling, I think is a by-product of the fact that the players don't do the right level or don't engage in the right level of due diligence. So I think many agents or agencies or runners, they try to develop that relationship early on, and so they're able to say whatever they want. And if the player doesn't then have a real process after the fact where he then has meetings with other agents or other representatives, challenges things that are said by the first agent that has established a relationship with him, then you end up making a bad decision because you're taking someone at his word without checking with the NBA, checking with potential sponsors, checking with the union, checking with other agents to find out the way things should work.
And so that's why I think it's dangerous if you don't have -- if the player doesn't have -- the savvy to kind of ask those questions. He needs to have someone else, some other adult figure, whether it be an AAU coach, a college coach, a professor at the school, to help them conduct that process.
If this were General Motors looking for a business partner, or a vendor, someone who is going to make a lot of money off of GM, they would book a conference room, they'd have four or five different gro
ups come in and give presentations and they'd make some sort of informed decision. I guess I feel hungry for the day when these -- they are these young corporations -- would handle it the same way. In many cases they're so young it's an unreasonable expectation to have them approach it that way. They end up, it seems, instead making decisions based on, at least in some of these cases, shorter term things, like who can promise them favors or toys or whatever.
David Thorpe: Or who can establish a level of comfort with them. That's really what the key is. They establish a relationship and the player becomes comfortable with that person so they then don't challenge and make decisions on the merits. How many people choose a professional based on that professional recruiting them? You wouldn't pick a doctor that way. You wouldn't pick an accountant that way. So I just think it leads to not making decisions that can be in the player's best interests.
Marc Isenberg: I mean, all the things that we say, and I think there's a lot of people of like mind on this round table discussion, that want to come up with a better solution and a better approach. And then I sort of go back to reality and the messages that young elite athletes are getting which is oftentimes you focus on your career and I take care of the rest. That person who is on the other end of that conversation is the one that is trying to get in at an early age. In my book, we have that cartoon, where it's set in a PG-13 strip club. It's bread and circus. The athlete says, So what qualifies you to be my agent? And the reality is nothing about those type of interactions actually qualify him to be the agent. But in reality, it's that comfort level. It's that so-called trust that you can't necessarily define.
But what ends up developing, is that relationship that says he's my go-to guy, he's the guy in my inner circle that's going to help me with all those important business decisions that I'm going to make. It's that entrenchment that's very difficult for good, ethical agents to overcome. It's frustrating.
You know, hopefully part of the solution is just better education and trying to get the athletes to, you know, understand that it's fool's gold when you're developing these relationships, taking benefits or doing anything that would ever cloud your ability to make a clearheaded decision when it comes time to selecting the best, most competent, ethical agent.
David Thorpe: You've got to talk about education. Let's get into where they're being educated. That's really to me the inherent problem of all of this. One of y'all talked about, I think it was you, Henry, how you would want the player to handle it if he were thinking like a corporation, which he should. Of course, many of our athletes, regardless of color or age, are not prepared for that.
Derrick Rose seems like a really bright kid as an 18-year-old, but he's 18. You could pick any player, even at 22, and the NBA, they don't teach it in college. It's not like any of the businesses that's run out there. It's an incredibly unique situation where for a period of time, maybe five years to ten years, you can make an incredible amount of money. You can. Doesn't mean you will. And then it dries up forever, that particular revenue stream. There's very few businesses out there that run that way.
But here's the problem. If you're a college coach, you don't want to start educating your player on the business of the NBA, if indeed he has an NBA future, until he graduates. Most of these coaches I would say, Jim might have a different number, but I would say 90 plus percent of them don't want their players to leave ever. They want them to stay four years. And we understand that. They're in the business of winning games. That's how they feed their family, set up their financial future. So you don't want to teach a good player about the business of the NBA as a freshman so he learns about the NBA and maybe leaves after that year or a sophomore or a junior. Ideally you want to teach him everything after his senior year.
But as Jim knows, a lot of these players have made that decision before they play their last game in college. So there's a problem. So he's done now. Now you want to sit down and talk about it. He's already made his mind up. You're two years too late in many cases.
I almost wonder if the NCAA is like the complicating factor here, right? Because of the need for amateurism, you can't really go about educating these people, training them as professionals ... One of the first professional responsibilities a player would have would be how to do a good job of choosing an agent, right?
James Tanner: There are programs that do that. North Carolina and Coach Williams have a process for helping athletes and their families select agents. I know that Duke for a long time had a committee run by professor Paul Haagen, and I know he teaches a course on basically being a professional athlete. So he walks the players through the CBA and how it works. He talks to them about selecting an agent. This is part of his course work. And then when the athlete is ready to become a professional, then they have meetings with agents where Paul Haagen and an assistant athletic director sit in on those meetings, and sometimes Coach K. There are examples where schools do things like that, where they take it upon themselves to educate the athlete about being a professional.
Marc Isenberg: Since my book came out, I've been doing a lot of on-campus programs speaking about these issues. I would go back to what David said and would agree, there are probably coaches out there that would prefer that professional sports as a concept go away until they've exhausted their eligibility and would rather them not even be exposed to this element.
So I think that's been created out of the NCAA rules, out of the mindset of the college coaches, almost a demonization of all agents. It is almost a one-size-fits-all that, you know, they think that only bad things can happen when an agent has any type of interaction with their players, with the families.
And so, that's where we're getting into that area of the UAAA, which is the Uniform Agent Act, and all the things that are being done to keep athletes from having communication with agents. And the NFL PA actually instituted the three-year rule. And ultimately, what all this serves to do, in my opinion, is keep good agents off campus, those agents that want to follow the rule, number one, and then this parallel underground economy of agents or runners that aren't accountable to go ahead and do whatever they can to solidify and cement these type of relationships.
James Tanner: I completely agree with that, Marc. I think the way to fix it is to bring it out of the shadows, allow for recruiting, but allow for it to be controlled. There are programs that allow agents to come to practice where the coach is there. There are programs that have meetings after the season where the coaches participate. So things like that, where you're taking it away from, you know, where you're exposing it and making it fair and making it equitable in terms of access to the athlete, that's the way to fix it.
David Thorpe: Henry knows of an example I use to kind of say what you guys are saying. Jim, I thought that was a really great point, about taking it out of the shadows. One of my favorite movies, The Untouchables, there's a great scene in the movie where Sean Connery's character is showing Elliott Ness, Kevin Costner's character, where the booze is. And Elliott Ness is surprised that he knew where it was. And Connery said, We've always known; that's not the issue. The issue is, do you want to tackle Capone? We all know what the problems are, but we'
re not law enforcement. It has to be -- in fact, I read Mark Cuban's comment about the IRS. I thought that was brilliant, to tie in with Al Capone even better.
If people know what's going on, it's just a matter of whether you want to tackle it. I want to address the issue because the general perception, Henry, the average TrueHoop reader probably thinks there's a world of NCAA coaches and a world of agents and they all hate each other.
But in reality it's exactly the opposite. College coaches and agents and runners are absolutely intertwined at every level. That doesn't mean every agent is working with college coaches and every college coach is working with agents. The large percentage of them work together to help players go to schools, not necessarily legally or illegally. But it exists.
If you have a person that's connected to a player, we talked about earlier, who one day hopes that this kid becomes an NBA player because he'll get his chance as a manager or whatever you want to call yourself, which a lot of these guys do, you want to make sure he goes to the right school. So you're going to try to help deliver that player to the right school. And the college coaches know and play to that. And that guy may tie himself into an agency for reasons we discussed. That's who you're dealing with. It happens every day on campuses all over the country, high school level, AAU circuits. They're all interconnected.
As Jim says, until we recognize it, deal with this as the real problem -- it's not two separate worlds, it's all one big world, and it's messy -- we'll never clean it up.
[At this point, late-comer Jason Levien has just joined the conversation.]
Jason, does that make sense to you?
Jason Levien: Yeah, I think there are a lot of -- unfortunately for the player -- there are a lot of relationships that form that the player's not aware of. I don't know how much you discussed so far about this. But when you're interested in representing a player, there are a lot of relationships, whether it be a friend or an uncle, a high school coach, where there's an agenda there that the player's not aware of.
I heard the point about bringing it out of the shadows that Jim made. I think one of the most important things is for the player to be aware of who's involved in his life and what agenda they have and to understand the relationships between those people. That's what's difficult because there's a lot of information that I don't think the player understands or that the player is given the information about.
So as an agent, one of the frustrating things is when you're going to represent a player, there are all these other people involved who feel like they have a relationship with the player that they want to somehow monetize. I think it's important for the player to kind of view that and see who's creating value, what are my interests, and what's important for me in terms of my future. So that's one of the things that I think is important in terms of bringing it out of the shadows.
David Thorpe: I'll say something else, too, guys, on the agent side. One of y'all mentioned the one-size-fits-all kind of thing. The reality is that agents all have different not just talents but business plans and missions, and players all have different needs.
There are certain players, whether they be rookies or 10-year veterans, who might need a lot less maintenance life management from their agent because of a strong family structure or I've got some players that have really intelligent, down-to-earth, humble wives who have a partnership with their husband. The husband plays and the wife manages his career, and therefore doesn't need an agent booking tickets to a vacation spot or making sure that family has seats at the game when they come in town, one of the thousand things that agents have to do. And then there's other players that are on their own or maybe in a situation where, as Jason was kind of saying, they're not really sure who they can trust inside their life.
Let's face it, we're talking about crazy amounts of money. And most families, again, whether they're white, black, American, European, or Asian now, it represents a tremendous amount of money. So they're not sure where they can turn to. They need an agent to help manage that.
So there are different needs and there are different agencies that specialize, depending on what those needs were. So I think that has to be factored in. But it's a difficult thing to talk to players about because it's being honest with them. It's being absolutely transparent what's going on in their lives and yours.
Marc Isenberg: It's very difficult to decipher a relationship that's based on mentorship and might have developed out of high school careers going through in transition to college and now once we get to the monetization moment to say, wait a second, what's in it for you? I need full transparency. What relationships are out there and how would you benefit financially by me going to a particular agent?
I think you have to demand that transparency and full disclosure and recognize that's what empowers these people working on the fringes and in the shadows, is, you know, when nobody's ever calling them to task and finding out what they're doing and what their end game is in this whole business.
I guess I feel like the more I think about this, the more I can't get over the idea that the perfect antidote to the sort of sliminess in recruiting is informing players. A player who has business savvy could probably negotiate this really well. Is that a pipe dream of a solution? Could you ever get players who are informed enough to make their own good decisions here?
David Thorpe: No, you can get there. The question is, who does it and what's their agenda? You'd have to police that. One of my big concerns, Henry, on the idea of the NBA getting involved in player development, which is itself is a concern of mine, I don't know if you'd want a monopoly on developing players. ... On a larger scale, you're talking about influence. I believe that the Duke people, in Jim's case, I've coached players from Duke, in fact, I think Jim represented one of the guys I once trained, I think the Duke guys don't have an agenda. I think they really just want what's best for their player.
But that's Duke. I don't know that you can necessarily create that on a grand scale and make sure that the people on the inside don't have their own agendas, whether it's agents or financial planners, which is part of this process, too. But ideally you're right, educating them would go a long way towards solving it.But you don't have to resolve it totally. You just want to move towards a resolution and get guys more and more informed. You're always going to have mistakes. Keep things out in the light more and more. You'd have to have a media as well as potentially an investigative agency wanting to look at the murky -- when things are murky or seem twisted, that's when we need to jump in and say this isn't right. We can't have a runner somewhere just funneling players to a school and then to an agent just over and over again and just ignore it and then expect we're actually going to have a clean business, because that's just the opposite.
That's where I feel a little bit sense of urgency now. When I started TrueHoop three years ago I had these kind of conversations agents and people would say, yeah, there are a few
players here and there who took the money. And you have no idea what's really true in most cases. But this year it seems like you hear the stories about almost everybody. It seems like it's getting worse. Basically, David Falk is not alone in saying that if you're an agent and you want to get a top player in the 2008 draft, you're likely paying somebody.
David Thorpe: I was just going to say, I think you hear more of it because of the Internet. I blame TrueHoop for that. [Laughter]. You've got all the bloggers and all the people reading the blogs and the comment pages everywhere. You create so much more of what really exists. I don't know that it's any different than it's ever been. There might be more money in some cases for certain players. You look at some of the camps and the speaker business, so forth, I don't know that it's changed very much in my 21 years in the business. It's just changed a little bit. I mean, I can go back into the early days of the '90s and even the late '80s when I started coaching, things weren't too different. You just read about it so much more now because there's so much more content out there.
Marc Isenberg: I've written it on Money Players, just how much the media is becoming the third arm of NCAA enforcement. They are actively pursuing and doing these investigative reports to uncover this type of information. And then because we've had most of this information come out in very high-profile situations, where a spurned insider, a guy from the inner circle, a runner, whatever definition we're going to label him, didn't get what he wanted out of the relationship, and the end game wasn't what it was set out to be, and they either go to ESPN or there's some type of lawsuit, and then the parallels, there's this piling-on effect, particularly at USC, because on the heels of Reggie Bush, all the relationships that were involved there, and then this same type of dynamic unfolds and somebody goes to the media and it blows up that way.
I don't know -- going back to what David Stern said, this has been going on for a long time. Two reasons that we're getting it, as David said, there's just more constant pressure, more blogs, more investigative journalists looking at it. Then we have this gap year where college athletes, who wouldn't otherwise be on college campuses are put under the microscope. And so a lot of those issues are emerging just for that reason.
Jason Levien: This is also a relatively new phenomenon in the sense it's only been about ten years since players have been coming from high school or leaving school early so consistently to go to the NBA. I remember 10 years ago, the majority of these guys were four-year guys. There were a few guys, one or two or three guys, leaving early. And I think since the floodgate has been opened in the last 10 years, that's changed.
The only other point I wanted to make is I think one of the things we can do to change the system is to touch on some of the points you guys made, number one, I love the idea of having a class on the professional athlete that Jim mentioned that Duke has. Informing the players. Then having a system where they're exposed to different people, whether it be coming to practice, so they're exposed to different agents so they're learning more about the business as they go through their careers.
Finally, all these laws have been passed and I'm not aware of much enforcement of them, whether it's the UAAA, that Marc was talking about. I mean in West Virginia, different states that have adopted these laws, you know, I'm not aware they've been enforced at all. Until there's some enforcement, there's not going to be much regulation of the practice.
David Thorpe: I'll bring up a conversation I had with a general manager in the NBA. His point was: the difference between the NBA and the NCAA is in the NCAA we have this phone book style manual of rules to govern every interaction between player/coach, coach/booster, everything. And then sort of the belief out there is that most of the rules are not being enforced or they're being selectively enforced. Then in the NBA they get sort of a map every year of points of emphasis and you better not break those rules. There's so many rules out there and there's so many gray areas, deciding what is or what isn't a legal benefit, an extra benefit, that it makes it very difficult to deal with these issues in black and white.
And then it becomes a matter of not that these are against NCAA rules but what are my chances of getting caught? I think that's a real unfortunate discussion these players are having.
The second and final part of this conversation is coming tomorrow.