A "MINIATURE UNITED WAY" is how sports agent Leigh Steinberg is described in a press release he commissioned in 1988: "Despite his compassion for mankind, and what many consider extremely high values, Steinberg doesn't feel guilty for the high-priced contracts he has negotiated." Why should he? After all, it's his job to make money, and in 17years of wheeling and dealing, the only sports agent to have his wedding televised on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous has made hundreds of millions of dollars for his clients and millions for himself He is now dickering to increase those totals by making very rich men of his half-dozen blue-chippers, including Desmond Howard and David Klingler, just selected in the NFL draft. To sign with Steinberg, whose roster includes 17 NFL quarterbacks, an athlete must agree to be a "role model" and to donate part of his paycheck to charity. Despite Steinberg's high-mindedness, a 1991 GQ profile branded him "The Agent From Hell." There are at least two sides to Steinberg.
Sports Illustrated: Are agents running sports?
Leigh Steinberg: Television probably has a much more decisive impact, but obviously there are agents and lawyers who have tremendous power by virtue of representing star players necessary to maintain a sport. Ultimately, the power is held by team owners.
SI: Owners seem to be conceding more and more power to agents. When was the last time a top draft pick attended training camp? Agents use them as ransom until their demands are met.
LS: It doesn't take a genius to hold a player out of camp. The trick is to double-track the negotiation process. You allow the player to do everything the team asks: go to minicamp, move to the city. At the same time, you carry on negotiations. The worst results I've had have been in holdouts. Andre Ware got an enormous amount of money from the Detroit Lions, but he was late to training camp. And it negatively impacted his rookie year. In my mind, that was not a totally successful negotiation. Is he financially enriched? Yes. Did he get more money by holding out than he would have gotten by signing? Yes. But my job is not just to maximize his income—it's to get him into his professional development as rapidly as possible. Whatever part I played in that deadlock was not constructive.
SI: What about athletes who demand that their contracts be renegotiated?
LS: I think it's completely insensitive. There's a tender relationship between sports fans and their heroes. Fans attend sports as a fantasy, an alternative reality. When a fan is confronted with labor and contract and drug problems, all things he's trying to escape, we endanger that fantasy element.
SI: The most fantastic element of sports is the compensation. There are baseball players who are now getting $6 million a year and basketball players who make $7 million. The average baseball salary exceeds a million. How much can owners afford to pay these guys?
LS: There's no question we'll see $10 million baseball players. There's no logical limit except the limitation of TV and other revenue sources. It's like asking what is the logical limit that a Coca-Cola could cost. When I was a kid, it cost hardly anything. For a long period, it cost a dime. Now it can cost a buck twenty-five. It's simply inflation. People get very angry at salaries in sports, but nobody gets angry when Michael Jackson makes $100 million on a nationwide tour or signs a billion-dollar deal with Sony.
SI: Various sports have toyed with the idea of doing away with agents, perhaps by instituting something like a wage scale.
LS: There is no system that could ever work in the individualized world of athletes and athletic performances. Some players have the ability to draw fans or are more important in terms of a team. The team has the right to value those players the way it chooses. Look, one of the major mistakes agents make is narrowly defining their roles as simply putting more dollars into the bankbook of their players. I don't want to represent the highest-priced players in a dying sport or send athletes out into a society that doesn't respect them.
SI: Why are you only interested in handling athletes who are model citizens?
LS: For good or ill, athletes trigger imitative behavior. They can use their high profiles to help shape attitudes. If a player is willing to accept the economic largesse that the sport gives him, then I believe he has special obligations. Now, if he disagrees with that, there are many other people in the world who will be happy to represent him.
SI: Why should athletes have to be role models? What's wrong with their just being athletes?
LS: The problem that the athlete has is that he's surrounded by externals—adulation, newspaper clippings, money, people who like him because he's an athlete—all of which fade when his career is over. If he hasn't built a strong sense of self-respect, settled in a community where he's cared for and cares for other people, and come to understand that those values will transcend a short football, baseball or basketball career, then he's in for a rude awakening when he leaves sports. We're trying to prepare the athlete with values and friendships that can last a lifetime.
SI: You're preparing them with values?
LS: Excuse me. They come with values. That's not what I meant to say. What we're trying to do is stimulate values.
SI: Stimulate? In what way?
LS: We ask our athletes to think about a way to retrace their roots and go back to the high school and collegiate levels and set up programs that enhance the quality of life. My players have established something like 47 high school scholarship funds. For Warren Moon, it's the Crescent Moon Foundation, which he endowed with a couple of hundred thousand dollars. He's raised large amounts of money for things like prenatal counseling and gang counseling. I understand that cynical people in the 1990s look at everything in life as a scam, a gimmick, a p.r. ploy. But these athletes really care about the programs they set up.
SI: Some cynical people say other agents' athletes support charities quietly but yours do it for maximum publicity value.
LS: Yes, they do. I think it's important. If Troy Aikman gives $1,000 to help underprivileged kids in Dallas, that's nice. But because he's a celebrity, his real value is the public identification that allows the charity to then raise thousands or millions of dollars that otherwise wouldn't be going to that charity. My answer is not that my athletes should be less publicized but that the charitable activities of the other athletes should be more publicized.
SI: For years you got favorable press. But last summer GQ portrayed you as a self-aggrandizing publicitymonger who couldn't care less about his clients or the causes he champions.
LS: Ha! It was like Bizarro Comics, in which a guy washes his hands with dirt, and ugly is beautiful, and beautiful, ugly. That article was put together by individuals bent on discrediting me and my law firm. [Art Cooper, editor in chief of GQ, responds: "That's an interesting conclusion on his part. Mostly, we were accused of puffery on that piece. I can't tell you how many people called afterwards and said, 'You ought to write about the real Leigh Steinberg.' "]
SI: GQ has you saying you never recruit athletes. Is that right?
LS: Yes. We don't solicit clients.
SI: What do you mean by that?
LS: As a lawyer, the one area where there's any kind of regulation is in flatly calling someone where there's no prior relationship.
SI: Do you think of yourself as a lawyer or an agent?
LS: As a lawyer.
SI: Is it unethical to call a potential client?
LS: Not for an agent.
SI: So why wouldn't you solicit a player?
LS: We just try to stay in conformance with the last vestiges of the bar rules. The rules have largely been eaten up, so there's very little left.
SI: Rival agents are claiming that when Florida State quarterback Casey Weldon was in Los Angeles for a game last August, you called him in his hotel room to introduce yourself and offer your services.
LS: Wait a second. Agents are entitled to meet athletes at any place and under any time constraints they choose. There are only two rules: The NCAA doesn't allow college players to sign with agents or to accept something of value.
SI :I'm not arguing that point. I'm just curious how your conversation with Weldon fits into your definition of solicitation.
LS: What happened with Casey Weldon is his team was out here, staying in a hotel, the Marriott, to play BYU. And he came over and said, "Hi." I mean, I don't have a problem with the.... Let me clarify this whole thing. Let me start over.
SI: Go ahead. The question is, Does that qualify as solicitation ?
LS: I don't remember. The point is that I don't have any problems with walking up to an athlete and congratulating him for his performance. I just think the relationship tends to work better when an athlete reaches out. That doesn't mean that I've never, you know, initiated contacts with an athlete. It happens. We would prefer to wait until the athletes call us. If they call us, it means they're out looking. And it starts the relationship better. But not all of our relationships start that way.
SI: If you're interested only in potential role models, why did you go after Todd Marinovich, an admitted drug user?
LS: That's kind of a sore point. I don't feel comfortable talking about him.
SI: Let's talk about an athlete who's not one of your clients, Magic Johnson. He got tremendous public sympathy after revealing that he was HIV-positive. Magic claims he's strictly heterosexual. How would the public have reacted if he'd said he was gay?
LS: It would have been devastating. Homosexuality is the last great largely unexamined taboo in the sporting world. In all my years as an agent, I can't recall an active professional player acknowledging he was gay—which, if the Kinsey Report is true, shows how repressed and scared gay athletes must be. If Magic had said he was gay or bisexual, it would have shattered the perception of sports as a male, macho bastion. The public would have reacted with disillusionment, scorn and hostility, but eventually that would have been replaced by understanding and compassion.
SI: Would his sponsors have deserted him?
LS: The nature of business is to shy away from controversy. Advertising dollars are spent to bring favorable publicity. It would have been difficult to convince business executives to weather the storm.
SI: Would you advise a gay athlete with HIV to go public?
LS: From the standpoint of short-term self-interest, no. From the standpoint of breaking longtime stereotypes, yes. Going public would force the athlete into a series of confrontations and reevaluations that might be difficult to deal with—especially while facing up to the grim reality of his illness. He'd have to balance the possible positive impact on fellow gays and society against the potential discrimination, the loss of endorsement contracts and his ability to make a living.
SI: You think an athlete who is HIV-positive would still want to compete?
LS: I've never met an athlete who didn't want to come back from an illness or injury. It was difficult for me to convince Neil Lomax not to return as quarterback of the Phoenix Cardinals after he'd had a hip replacement. As bright as some athletes are, there are things they don't want to hear.
SI: Such as?
LS: Most athletes are living in a state of denial about their physical well-being. They're required to keep going while their body is signaling that they're injured. They're willing to risk their health with drugs that mask the effects of pain or simply ignore pain so as not to be called training-room players—or have their sense of commitment diminished in their coaches' eyes. When it comes to what's prudent to do with their bodies, they operate on a set of assumptions that are different from those of the rest of society.
SI: How do your clients react when you express concern for their health?
LS: They look at me as if I'm well-meaning but simply don't understand. The reality is that there's a nasty little secret at the end of most football careers: that a player will carry his physical disabilities around for the rest of his life. It'll be more difficult to pick up a ball, to tie his shoes, to play with kids. In 1981 I had three top draft picks: Kenny Easley of the Seattle Seahawks suffered degenerative kidney damage, Curt Marsh of the Raiders underwent a series of back operations, and Lomax had his hip replaced. Here are three guys in their early 30's who'll be partly disabled for the rest of their lives.
SI: You have some suggestions?
LS: Just some very simple rule changes. The big one concerns quarterbacks. By affording them the same protection in the pocket as the punter, we could cut down significantly on injury. I don't see any value in having a quarterback get hit after he's released the ball. There certainly isn't any dramatic value—the fans are watching the play downfield. Yet the NFL won't make this change, partly because it runs against the tough, macho instincts of the game.
SI: Have you polled your own quarterbacks on this issue?
LS: Yes, and they all disagree. But that's the whole point—they're in denial. They'd rather rely on their ability to escape and improvise. Which reminds me of motorists who won't wear seat belts because they imagine getting trapped by the belt in a fiery crash. Never mind that 99 percent of the time that doesn't happen. Football purists say the rule change would tamper with the excitement and violence of the game. I say anyone who's stirred up by the sight of an unprotected quarterback getting blindsided and slammed to the ground by a beefed-up 300-pound charging defensive lineman has missed his era. He would have loved watching Christians being fed to the lions.
SI: Which of those would you have preferred to represent?
LS: Which what?
SI: The Christians or the lions?
LS: The Christians would have had a harder time with role modeling, so I guess the lions.