Insights: Sports

As long as the money is big, sports agents are inevitable - and some will go bad
| By Dave Anderson | From The Cuba Issue, May/Jun 01

As long as the money is big, sports agents are inevitable -- and some will go bad

They are bandits with briefcases, the unscrupulous sports agents who prey on unsuspecting athletes. They have been convicted of thefts as bold as Jesse James's legendary train robberies. Others have simply blown their clients' money because of mismanagement. Some have done both.

They are the scum of sports. And no matter how often the scum is skimmed off the pond of multimillion-dollar contracts, more scum soon develops because the pond keeps getting bigger.

Not all sports agents are crooks; it just seems that way sometimes when one is indicted or convicted or jailed. Most are basically honest and responsible, but even the most reputable are, by the nature of their occupation, primarily motivated by greed. The bigger the contract for their athlete, the bigger their cut.

An agent's cut for negotiating a player's team contract can have limits -- a maximum of 4 percent in the National Basketball Association, 3 percent in the National Football League, but the National Hockey League and Major League Baseball have no limit. The cut for a player's marketing agent or financial adviser is separate and negotiable.

Whenever a sports agent says, as so many of them do, that the athlete's megamillion-dollar contract "is not about the money," be assured that it is definitely about the money. For both the athlete and the agent.

The agents' common denominator is a drive to ask for more -- more salary, more years, more bonus money, more perks. If you don't ask, you'll never get. And as outrageous as a request might seem, maybe the club will be dumb enough to agree to it. Scott Boras, the agent who negotiated shortstop Alex Rodriguez's 10-year, $252 million contract with the Texas Rangers, had the most brazen suggestion yet: that Rodriguez always had to be baseball's highest-paid shortstop.

"Scott asked me about that, but we said we can't do that," Doug Melvin, the Rangers' general manager, recalls. "What if Derek Jeter had that in his Yankee deal? It would go to infinity. A-Rod gets bumped and the next day Jeter has to get bumped because A-Rod got bumped. Then A-Rod would have to get bumped again. On and on and on."

Ask and maybe you shall receive. That has always been the credo of every agent, especially David Falk, who negotiated all those deals for Michael Jordan with the Chicago Bulls, Nike, McDonald's and anybody else willing to pay the price. Falk reportedly kept 20 percent of Jordan's outside income at first, then 15 percent.

With such marquee names as Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo and Stephon Marbury in his stable, Falk has been described throughout the NBA as "the agent from hell" for influencing where his clients play. Nothing annoys Commissioner David Stern more than talk that Falk is really the commissioner.

When agent Eric Fleisher's secret contract for forward Joe Smith, worth as much as $86 million over seven years, violated the NBA's salary cap, Stern fined the Minnesota Timberwolves $3.5 million, took away four first-round draft choices, disciplined owner Glen Taylor and general manager Kevin McHale, and declared Smith a free agent; he then signed with the Detroit Pistons. Stern could not discipline Fleisher as such, but the agent is expected to be decertified by the NBA Players Association.

Leigh Steinberg, the model for Tom Cruise's character in Jerry Maguire, had a virtually unsullied reputation as the agent for more than four dozen football players, notably quarterbacks Troy Aikman and Steve Young. Steinberg's credo was that his clients must agree to be role models and donate part of their paychecks to charity.

But when the NFL discovered that Young's contract, among others, had violated its salary cap, Steinberg suddenly was hardly a role model himself. The NFL fined Carmen Policy and Dwight Clark (both now Cleveland Browns executives) $400,000 and $200,000, respectively, for violating the salary cap while with the San Francisco 49ers. Because of the agreement with the NFL Players Association, the agents involved had to contribute a total of $350,000 to charity -- $250,000 by Steinberg and his partner Jeff Moorad, and $100,000 by Gary Wichard, which is pending further review.

Over the past 25 years, high-powered agents have proliferated as a by-product of free agency in team sports. Once upon a time, only the biggest names had agents, and they were solely for endorsements. In the 1920s Babe Ruth had Christy Walsh and Red Grange had C.C. (Cash and Carry) Pyle. In the '40s, Ted Williams and Sam Snead had Fred Corcoran. In the '60s, Arnold Palmer had Mark McCormack, a Cleveland attorney who created the billion-dollar worldwide International Management Group that represents Tiger Woods. IMG's usual cut of whatever income it creates is 15 percent, although some of its clients pay more and some (notably Woods) pay less.

But back in the '50s, not even Yogi Berra had an agent until Frank Scott, then the Yankees' traveling secretary, had a sudden insight while visiting the slugger's home. When Berra's wife, Carmen, noticed that Scott wasn't wearing a watch, she brought out a tray of nearly two dozen wristwatches. "She told me to take my pick," Scott said. "That's how those scoundrels had been paying off Yogi for personal appearances." Scott decided to rectify that and soon left the Yankees to be a full-time agent. In addition to Berra, his dozens of clients included Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays and Henry Aaron.

In Mantle's Triple Crown year of 1956, when he led the American League in batting average, home runs and runs batted in, his Yankee salary was $30,000. He earned $70,000 in endorsements that year.

Scott only negotiated off-the-field deals, unlike today's agents who broker a player's or coach's contract as well as their endorsements. Some also handle a client's finances, investments and insurance.

Most all-purpose agents do an honest job, especially for rookies who suddenly have more money than they ever knew existed. But some agents are incompetent or irresponsible. "Any distraction that has to do with their money affects a player," says Ernie Accorsi, the New York Giants general manager. "When a player has a stable agent, it helps his career. Players who have bad agents have shorter careers." And sometimes, all that money is simply too much temptation for a dishonest agent.

Consider the case of William "Tank" Black, who is accused, in a federal indictment in Gainesville, Florida, of defrauding clients and mismanaging approximately $15 million of their money. Fred Taylor, the Jacksonville Jaguars running back, reportedly lost $3.6 million; Vince Carter, the Toronto Raptors leaper, about $3 million. Black is also awaiting May 10 sentencing (up to 6 1/2 years in prison and a possible $2.2 million fine) after pleading guilty in Detroit to laundering drug money.

Consider the case of John Gillette, a self-described San Diego financial planner, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison after pleading guilty to 38 counts of theft and one count of forgery in stealing $11 million from 25 clients, mostly football players. Darren Woodson, the Dallas Cowboys safety, lost about $3.7 million to Gillette.

And never forget the case of Alan Eagleson, the hockey power broker who was slicker than the ice. While he was the executive director of the National Hockey League Players Association, he also was the agent for about 150 players, a promoter of international tournaments, a corporate lawyer and a Canadian political figure. No matter what he did at any hour, it was almost by definition a conflict of interest with whatever he did an hour earlier or an hour later, but he never conceded that.

"I make no secret of the fact that I wear several different hats," Eagleson once said, "and when I put a new one on, the old one goes back in the closet."

But all of Eagleson's hats eventually went to jail with him. Charged with skimming players' pension funds and disability payments, he pleaded guilty in 1998 to three counts of mail fraud (and was fined $700,000) in a Boston court, then pleaded guilty to three counts of fraud in Toronto. He did six months in a Canadian prison.

So the next time a sports agent is indicted, don't be surprised. All that money out there is just too much temptation for the scum to ignore.


Dave Anderson is a Pulitzer Award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times.