SBJ/September 30 - October 6, 2002/Opinion
There's real muck behind sleazy image
Published September 30, 2002
Some say that the most prominent agent in sports is Leigh Steinberg, who had a knack for signing quarterbacks and a nose for the spotlight. He's the guy that Hollywood tapped to consult on "Jerry Maguire," the film that delved into the dirt of athlete representation and suggested a fantasy about how it could be cleaned up. The film fortified Steinberg's reputation as one of the few honorable agents, a fair and honest man who puts his clients first. That reputation has been bruised, but it's about to endure a Troy Aikman-like concussion if the knife fight against former partner David Dunn materializes this week in a Los Angeles courtroom.
You might remember that somebody got stabbed in the back. Then Dunn took off with Steinberg's clients but left the dirt, a trail of it that seems to fit nicely into our prejudices of this shabby corner of sports. The trial won't captivate us like other famous L.A. courtroom dramas, but it may command a slice of the industry's attention as does an impending head-on between a quarterback and a 260-pound linebacker rushing unabated toward him. There's no deep meaning here, no imperatives for the sports industry other than exposing more muck in a profession that can't seem to police itself.
A few weeks ago, I mentioned in this space that agents are sleazy, a base stereotype that is both cheap and impossible to defend. A reader and a friend, Phil de Picciotto, sent an e-mail saying my reference was funny. Phil, the head of Octagon's athlete representation, wrote: "It reminds me that sports business writers (and especially editors-in-chief) are ignorant and on the take. Agents and writers/editors should really hang out together more. Maybe I should consider writing a column."
OK, Phil, the point is yours, but until you start buying the ink, your comments are relegated to the "letters" column.
As for this space, I'm ready to admit the error of my ways. I didn't really mean to say that all agents are sleazy (but if the sneaker fits ...).
What I meant was that most agent are sleazy. Phil, you may be one of the good guys, still you wouldn't want your mother to know what you do. Let's face it, athlete representation can be a less-than-honorable profession. It just seems that the few of you who maintain an ethical standard are fighting the irresistible forces of greed and self-interest. And you get colored by the same brush that taints used car salesmen.
Image is what you live with, no matter how fair. The image of athlete representation isn't found in the fiction of the repentant Jerry Maguire, but in the fact of the high crimes of Tank Black, the back-stabbing of Dan Fegan and Brian Dyke, the client stealing of the Steinberg and Dunn case and the public bickering of Tom Condon and Mike Sullivan. It's about bag men, illegal payoffs, phony training camps and preying on the young and unwise. This is not just a perception, it's the reality.
There are real victims here. We might not give a damn what becomes of the agents, but the athletes, the central players in the drama that is sport, are victimized. Some lose eligibility. Some lose respect. Some become unable to distinguish right from wrong, truth from lies. All lose innocence.
The Steinberg-Dunn trial will give us a much more realistic view of the whole mess than "Jerry Maguire" did. It will spotlight an industry that has become indifferent to the scandals.
The thing is, Phil, you belong to a profession in need of serious regulation. Players associations aren't getting it done. Congress is taking an interest and the courts will assign blame. But wouldn't it be great in this non-Jerry Maguire world if you cleaned up your own act? You're not going to like it if you leave it to Congress and the courts.
John Genzale (firstname.lastname@example.org) is editor-in-chief of SportsBusiness Journal.