Leigh Steinberg tells why he’s an agent for change
By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau
Leigh Steinberg, a Pied Piper for sports agents, never tires of blazing a trail, and Tuesday he did the same for Grand Canyon University students eager to follow his lofty career path.
Speaking on campus to a large group from the Jerry Colangelo School of Sports Business, Steinberg was talkative and informative even though he’s in the sixth week of an exhausting tour to promote his book, “The Agent: My 40-Year Career Making Deals and Changing the Game.”
“You all have the ability to dream a vision, dream up a world the way you’d like it to be and make it a reality,” he told them, adding, “Make sure you have the passion for it.”
That’s exactly what Steinberg, 64, did when his fellow University of California student, star quarterback Steve Bartkowski, asked him to be his agent after Bartkowski became the first player chosen in the 1975 National Football League draft. When Steinberg, a law student who had gotten to know Bartkowski as a dorm counselor, saw the frenzy that greeted the pair upon their arrival in Atlanta, he likened it to what Dorothy said to Toto in “The Wizard of Oz.”
“I turned to him and said, ‘I’ve a feeling we’re not in Berkeley anymore,’” Steinberg recalled.
Soon after, Steinberg negotiated the largest rookie contract in NFL history ($650,000, pocket change compared to today’s mega-deals). And so began a career in which Steinberg took a role – player agent – that wasn’t even acknowledged by many professional team officials and turned it into one of advocacy and collaboration, at least in his world. Right from the start, he arranged to have his players give back to the community and sought to make negotiations more harmonious than acrimonious.
“I was looking for a way to take my own values and priorities and put them into practice in a real-world setting,” he said. “I encouraged our clients to look into their heart and see what their real value system was. You’d think of agent work as a lot of talking, but it’s really a lot of listening.”
Among the most creative campaigns created by Steinberg and his clients was “Kick for Critters,” in which San Diego Chargers placekicker Rolf Benirschke contributed $50 for each field goal he kicked and sought matching donations to a San Diego Zoo fund for endangered species. Heavyweight boxer Lennox Lewis hit home with a public-service announcement in which he said, “Real men don’t hit women.”
For students to reach their own goals, Steinberg urged them to be looking for new concepts and new ways of doing things, to be willing to put career ahead of personal pleasure, to learn how to effectively interact with people, to be an expert in the field and not a generalist, and to maintain a strong spiritual connection. “Your spiritual values and relationship with God will be constant, but what’s out there will be ever-changing,” he said.
The biggest change in sports during Steinberg’s time in the business has been the overwhelming effect of television, and Steinberg predicted that most of the students will wind up in TV jobs. According to Steinberg, 95 percent of sports agents are out of the business within five years because they lack the necessary capital, but TV keeps creating new jobs by finding new ways to feed the seemingly insatiable appetite of sports fans – and the Internet is creating even more avenues for job-seekers.
Football is facing an even bigger change, one that Steinberg perceives as its biggest threat – he calls it “existential” and says his role in his clients’ health is “a crisis of conscience.” That would be new research linking the sport to concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Steinberg has made it his top priority and has been an outspoken critic of the NFL’s previous attempts, based on a lack of evidence, to dismiss any correlation between repeated head trauma and CTE.
Steinberg talks of how alarming it is that Rayfield Wright, a former offensive tackle for the Dallas Cowboys, gave such an insightful, eloquent speech upon his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006 and now suffers from dementia. He talks of the importance of neurology research that has found CTE in the brain of nearly every former football player to be examined. He talks of how the NFL has finally begun to pour millions of dollars into its own research, but he maintains that “it’s not nearly what’s necessary.”
Steinberg was a key contributor to “League of Denial,” a book published last year that laid bare the NFL’s longstanding attempts to quash concussion discussion, and to a PBS documentary of the same name. Asked how he views alternative opinions from outside the NFL, such as “The War on Football” by Daniel Flynn, Steinberg responded, “The same way I view climate change. Human beings have a great ability to ignore what’s happening around them. This largely undiagnosed health epidemic – it’s here. … The brain is the last frontier of medical research.”
A key part of the research is in developing better helmets, better equipment to determine whether it is safe for an athlete to continue playing, and better pharmaceuticals to treat head injuries. There also is continued research into less severe but equally damaging “sub-concussive” hits, and findings in that realm could affect athletes in other sports. Last year, a study led by a professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center showed that soccer players who use their head to redirect the ball showed subtle structural damages in certain parts of the brain.
“The Agent” is mainly a book of stories, both professional and personal. Steinberg was the inspiration for the hit movie “Jerry Maguire” and also served as technical adviser for “Any Given Sunday” and “For the Love of the Game” and had input into the cable TV show “Arli$$.” It also details his lapse into and recovery from alcoholism. He says his four-year anniversary of sobriety is next month.
Now that he’s back in the game, his spirit for sports is stronger than ever.
“The thing I’ve tried to do is be the steward for the sport,” he said.
He’s a steward for agents – and future agents – as well.
Contact Rick Vacek at 639.8203 or [email protected]