Interview With The Agent: Leigh Steinberg
This is not your standard Interview With The Agent post. On April 15, 2008, I got an interesting email from a name I had never seen before. It included an offer for a one-on-one interview with Leigh Steinberg…yes, THE LEIGH STEINBERG. Usually, we go out looking for top agents to spend a few minutes answering some emailed questions and post them up here under the Interview With The Agent category. This time, Leigh had his people contact me to see if I was willing to talk to Leigh for twenty minutes about the changes in sports business to support concussion health. After taking 8 seconds to consider, I calmly agreed to the interview, and the rest is history. This past Wednesday, that scheduled twenty minute interview turned into a conversation that lasted over eighty minutes. Don’t worry, there was no way that I could hold a conversation about concussions for that long. I got as much information about the sports agent side of Leigh as I could, until he finally said, “I thought we were going to be talking about concussions.” Anyway, before you read the interview, I must say that it was a pleasure of mine to talk with Leigh for such a long period of time. He is humble, soft-spoken, and a truly charming individual. He may quite be the only person on this planet capable of representing Ricky Williams.
I started off by asking Leigh if he would mind fielding some non-concussion-related questions and gradually make our way towards the topic. He complied.
Me: I am going to jump right into some tough questions. It is well documented that your one time partner, David Dunn, tried to steal clients from you after your partnership dissolved. What can the NFLPA and government do to try to curb this type of activity? Did the NFLPA do enough to Dunn?
Leigh Steinberg: Two of the particular agents ended up being suspended by the NFLPA. I think [the NFLPA] took appropriate action. The agents in that case declared bankruptcy and the judge in bankruptcy did not allow the union to levy discipline, however. So even though the committee on discipline had gone ahead and adjudicated punishment, the discipline couldn’t be applied until just a year and a half ago. The union actually went ahead and did it’s job, but it was prevented by a legal maneuver. I guess my feelings about that situation were that we had always tried to have a firm that emphasized the importance of role modeling, of trying to make a positive difference in the world in teaching and counseling athletes in a way that would get them to fulfill their dreams, and it was disappointing to not have been able to mentor younger people in a way reflective of those values.
Me: It seems like those events did not deter you from making your way back into the representation business. What is your current relationship with Matt Leinart?
Leigh Steinberg: When I went into the representation of Matt, it was with the understanding that CAA would be doing his marketing and that my role would be a narrow one and I would be co-agenting with another NFLPA certified agent. It was disappointing [when Matt left for CAA] because we had been able to quite successfully work with him through the scouting process to the point that several weeks prior to the draft, he was well positioned to be picked high. If you recall, CAA at the time decided to acquire a number of sports agencies, one of them had a profitable football practice. At that point, they acquired Matt as a full service client. Since then, I think that Matt has severed his relationship with CAA for endorsements. But I wished him well and I think he is a good person and will be a great quarterback.
Me: You mention CAA. Is the conglomerate sports agency taking over the industry?
Leigh Steinberg: Our business has morphed and changed with a movement away from simple representation as a sole focus, towards an expansion of business opportunity and agentry also involving a broadened emphasis in marketing and content supply. That would encompass sports themed content for all of the multiple platforms of entertainment delivery, including sports theme motion pictures, TV, video games, video tape, mobile phones, internet, with the ability to both be producers, packagers, and consultants in helping to deliver packages and bundles of that content. So that’s drawn the interest of entertainment companies, who really have a keener interest in the equity interest that they might be able to own in that content and marketing than just the 3% or 4% that they can get from the negotiation of a player contract. We are seeing a shift in the nature of sports representation, which first occurred in the late 90s when SFX, Octagon, Assante and a variety of firms acquired multiple representation groups and combined them together to try to aggregate sports talent and then utilize that talent supply for marketing projects and content supply, hoping that the whole would be bigger than the sum of its parts. It’s now occurring again. This is a challenge to boutique agencies, because the larger entertainment sports entities can offer up-front guarantees to athletes, and their interests are really in the superstar athlete that offers marketing opportunities. It becomes very challenging for a boutique agency to compete. Because many athletes today have an interest in a career including owning a record label, being involved in entertainment, and the lure of an up-front guarantee of endorsements, the benefits of a large multiple service package can be very enticing.
Me: Can you explain a little bit about your relations with Bruce and Ryan Tollner? Are you still an advisor with the Tollners? (this is where you could tell that Leigh really wanted to shift the conversation to concussions, or at least his “Sporting Green Alliance”)
Leigh Steinberg: They have their own separate firm. I’m still on the Standard Representation Agreements of some of the clients that we share, but they have a firm now that they control on their own. My feeling is that [myself, Warren Moon, and others] will build a firm that will encompass representation and content supply.
Me: Let’s move onto the concussion issue. Can you first give us a little background information on how this topic has picked up steam within the sports circle?
Leigh Steinberg: I first became interested in the issue in the 1970s when so many athletes would suffer concussions, but the method of diagnosis was so rudimentary. The trainer would hold his fingers in front of someone’s face and ask how many fingers were present. Many players were suffering concussions and still playing. I once asked Steve Young how many concussions he had, and he asked, “official ones”? It was not considered official unless you were carted off of the field. That created the danger known as “Second Impact”, where the person suffers the first concussion, it’s not picked up, it takes much less of a blow to cause the second concussion, which will then create the perfect neurological storm. The other problem was that multiple concussions started to occur with the Troy Aikman’s, Steve Young’s, and Warren Moon’s, and no doctor would answer the question of how many were too many. The only diagnostic technique that measured head injuries were MRIs that showed white spots indicative of head trauma, and none of the players showed white spots. I held a number of conferences in the 90s and challenged doctors to establish standardized techniques. We issued white papers, and a number of players attended the conferences, but there were not enormous changes in NFL policy, and many parts of the community denied that it was even an issue. The whole concept of athlete denial did not help. Athletes are taught to ignore pain, that real men play through it, and that they will miss out if they don’t participate. When you combine denial with the thought that you will live forever, the combination is lethal. There were not older athletes that were being very forthcoming about aftereffects in respect to declining mental abilities. Some of the results from the neurologists were startling. I got to the point where I could no longer represent players knowing that I was sending them out into the field of play in an unsafe circumstance. The role of agents has to be broader than purely economic.
Me:You say that you could no longer bear seeing your clients enter the field of player in unsafe circumstances. Is that why you are so interested in this topic? What makes this issue your personal calling?
Leigh Steinberg: Every Sunday has been like an episode of ER. There are times that I think I should have gone to Med School instead of Law School. The thought that large numbers of players would be incurring injuries that could effectively impact their memory, consciousness, and ability to live normal lives once they get out of the sport, is a heavy burden. The relationships that grow over time with clients are much more than business relationships.; they’re friendships, very very deep relationships with a lot of love and caring. And the duty is to help protect your client. It raises the ethical question of representation: is the agent an enabler? That’s the question that I, as someone who has represented more NFL players than anyone else, have had to grapple with. Many agents are simply facilitating a transaction that is going to send an athlete onto a battleground which will end up with him at a later stage in life being mentally and physically crippled. I gave Warren Moon’s presenting speech when he went to the Hall of Fame. There was a luncheon that only former players and presenters got to go to, which meant that I was surrounded by the absolute greatest players who have ever played in the NFL. It was an awe-inspiring site. What was also awe-inspiring is that a great many of them had difficulty walking or moving around properly. Some percentage of them were having real difficulty getting up onto a raised stage.
Me: What has the NFL done to tackle its concussion problem?
Leigh Steinberg: Roger Goddell has implemented a whistleblowers edict, which encourages players to report when other players have suffered major blows on the field of play.
Me: Could the solution be as simple as a custom-fit mouthpiece, which has been used by the N.E. Patriots? The Patriots listed 0 concussions from 2000-2003.
Leigh Steinberg: There were mouthpiece representatives at the recent National Sports Concussion Summit. I asked a number of times about the issue and the neurologists were not clear that there is enough evidence on the issue. There has not been enough surveys done that prove it out. I am anxious to know the answer myself. The manufacturers of some of the new mouthpieces claim great results, and if it is true, it would be a great contribution, but the neurologists at this point don’t seem to back it up. That does not mean it’s not true, though. The mouthpiece manufacturers made some bold claims, and I hope that they are right.
Me: I received some information about custom-fit mouthpieces after announcing that I would be conducting this interview. Anyway, as you may have heard from your publicist, I very recently suffered from a mild concussion. I found that the ER doctors, neurosurgeons, and ear/nose/throat doctors were not fully confident on giving me any information about my future health. Why is the medical field behind on this issue?
Leigh Steinberg: Because the brain in general is less of a frontier of medical research. A lot of what we know about brain function is being discovered as we speak. Some of the testing and reports we saw this year were more expansive than last year. What makes this field more difficult is that when someone has a cast on their leg, it is clear that they are injured. You have a confused and unclear reporting group with concussions and there has been a lot of denial in this field, because it heavily involves athletes who are often in denial. We are talking about human consciousness, memory, what separates us from non-living things. Short of life and death, this is the most critical effort.
Me: Last question on concussions: What are your future plans regarding this issue?
Leigh Steinberg: I think the Berlin Wall of concussion denial fell last year when the NFL held their doctors conference and the new commissioner has shown a real willingness to address and explore this issue, and they’re issuing a whole set of concussion guidelines to players in ways that have never happened before. More time and energy will go into studying and exploration. The physics of the hit will only continue to make this more pressing. There was a TE last year, Ben Watson, UGA, 270lbs, ran a 4.3 forty. Imagine the bigger, faster bodies colliding. The physics of the hit are changing. It involves teaching proper technique, avoiding unnecessary hits, no helmet to helmet in football (intent or not); keeping an eye on playing surfaces and better diagnosis; taking players off the field of play and keeping them off until they’re ready to go back; pushing baseline testing, which is now mandatory for every team in the NFL. We should get testing into every college, high school, and youth sport. In California, I will be funding baseline testing in high schools that are not testing at this point.
Me: I now know more about concussions than I ever thought I would know. Besides the issue of concussions in sport, you have also been an advocate in going green and you are working on a separate project called “Athletes for Obama”. Tell me a little bit about each and why you are so philanthropic.
Leigh Steinberg: I think that we’ve reached a tipping point in terms of Global Warming. We have prodigious intellect and technological skills but deeply flawed emotional systems. It seems to be blinding us as a species to our own imminent demise as a species. The signs of global warming and climate change are all around us: the Earth is getting warmer, we have nonstop hurricanes and tornadoes, viruses keep emerging, oceans are rising, and icecaps are breaking. 40% of the pollution we are breathing in California comes from China. The imperative to act on this or face a dramatically degraded quality of life for now and forever, is now…or we risk being the first generation to hand down to our children a drastically reduced quality of life. And the mistake is thinking somehow that the Earth is in danger. The Earth will keep on rolling through ice ages and any manner of climate change. It’s our species that’s fragile.
Given that my life has played out in sport, the question is: Is there a way that athletes, sport, and sports franchises can take the lead in triggering changing consciousness and action in this area? So we created the concept of a “Sporting Green Alliance” and used the Miami Super Bowl as a starting point. We had a green Super Bowl party with a Green Carpet and many other elements. This year, in Phoenix, we had a complete green Super Bowl Party. We released an endangered hawk into the wild and [the party] was completely green and biodegradable. All energy systems were greened up and environmentally correct. I have started meeting with teams and franchises to try to incorporate these technologies into stadia and arenas. The second stage is to utilize those buildings as educational and teaching platforms, to expose all the fans to environmental concepts and practices which they might then incorporate into their own lives. They might become little science and discovery centers. And the franchises themselves could be leaders in the field in putting out their own green content: educational materials, cartoon shows, comic books, etc. Individual athletes could be involved in cutting green messages. We’re in the first stages of talking to franchises about getting involved and hopefully we will be able to sign up a number of them and they will become leaders in green. When Walmart put the environmentally safe lightbulbs in their stores, it marked a change in corporate culture in this country. When they made that step, it was no longer the purview of treehuggers. It meant that a corporate shift had occurred in this country. Sports should lead the way because the basic premise has always been that the athlete should be the role model and that people will listen to messages properly framed from athletes who would otherwise tune out political and authority figures. We can play a real role in trying to make a positive difference in the world.
There has always been a reticence for athletes to be involved in traditional politics. Most traditional agentry would caution non-involvement and echo Michael Jordan’s famous statement, “Republicans buy speakers too,”. Most athletes have shied away from politics because they are attempting to curry 100% favor. Now I understand that it doesn’t make great sense to get involved in certain religious/moral/ethical issues. Abortion might be one. Gay marriage might be one. There are some issues that are so passionate and emotionally charged that it doesn’t make good sense for an athlete to be involved. The downside is way too large. But I have always encouraged athletes to be politically involved. Traditionally, most athletes have been conservatives or Republicans. People who pay heavy taxes, especially young athletes who are paying more taxes from their first taxes than they have ever made their entire life, have a good reason to be anti-tax. This has led them to be more traditional followers of the Republican party. Or they are apolitical because they are so involved in their athletic career. Athletes are so self-absorbed that they don’t develop the normal skills often to be successful later on in life: the inter-personal skills, the networking that will help them. In a candidate like Obama, especially for an African American athlete, it is a natural, because here is someone who offers hope, talks about inclusion, inspires young people. So we have been talking to athletes who have been inclined that way. Troy Aikman was a George Bush supporter. I think that’s fine. It doesn’t have to be my own politics. For me, Obama captures the same sort of hope and inspiration that John Kennedy did for another generation.
Me: What lasting thoughts do you have to the young readers of SportsAgentBlog.com who will be the next generation of powerful sports agents?
Leigh Steinberg: It is critical that agents need to remember their role of being stewards for the sport and thinking of their clients holistically in terms of how to advance the interests of their clients as human beings, not simply in terms of the dollars that they can negotiate. The real question is, 5 years post career, 10 years post career…is that a fulfilled person that has a happy, productive life? I am happy when I can say I have athletes like a Troy Aikman, who is making the Hall of Fame, part of the top broadcasting team, owning NASCAR teams, has interests in business, is running a viable charitable organization, and is financially secure with a great family. That’s the ultimate goal. One of the real flaws of traditional agentry is that there is no collegiality to it. Agents are so hyper-critical of each other that they don’t advance it as a profession, because they are so competitive that they are unable to acknowledge that other agents negotiate well or do a good job. They rejoice in the failure or difficulties of each other, and without understanding that it is a profession and the more successful every agent is, the better it is. Too often it’s crabs in a barrel. I’ve tried all these years to advance the profession and make it something that people would be proud of. None of us are perfect people and I have had my moments, but I thought that a project that I did like Jerry Maguire changed the perception of agents.
Me: I started up SportsAgentBlog.com for three main reasons. 1) I had just finished an internship and wanted to somehow think outside of the box to make a name in the industry, 2) I felt it would be a good way to ensure I keep up with the latest news and information, and 3) I wanted to make this industry more open and create that mutual respect among agents that you mentioned above. What can we do to try to foster that kind of respect for one another?
Leigh Steinberg: There was once a group called ARPA. Believe it or not, it was a group of supportive agents, and it was pretty large. They gave awards for agent of the year. Agents used to share negotiating tips and would call each other for advice on negotiations. It was a friendlier profession. Even though it was much less regulated, it was a much friendlier profession 20 years ago. Unfortunately, today, the level of competitiveness is so high. If you talk to a good doctor, he can tell you about other good doctors. If you talk to a great lawyer or professor, the same thing. If you pull a book out, on the back cover, there will be 5 complimentary blurbs from other authors. Try that with a sports agent. I support your efforts in trying to make the community friendlier.