The Michigan Daily - Sports Monday - February 4, 1991 - Page 3
The sports attorney speaks of higher
ideals than your typical sports agent
Leigh Steinberg is a sports at-
orney who has made a name for
himself in the industry by carefully
selecting his clients and insisting
that they give something back to the
communities they represent. Stein-
berg visited the University last term
to speak to students about his
profession. Recently, Daily Sports
Editor Matt Rennie talked more in
depth with this unique personality.
Daily: When you refer to your
own profession, you call yourself a
sports attorney rather than a sports
agent. Why is that?
Steinberg: I think the problem
that agents have created is that
they've narrowly defined their role
as simply adding one more dollar
to the bank book of athletes. The
problem with that is that the ath-
tes are human beings with a
Whole variety of needs and desires,
and those things need to be filled.
The second problem is that it re-
moves the agent from the respon-
sibility of the consequences of the
contracts that he does.
For example, I think it's
equally important to think about
the effects that large contracts
have on ticket prices. With Steve
*artkowski, we offered to take a
cut in his already existing contract
with the Atlanta Falcons to the ex-
tent that the Falcons would lower
ticket prices. I've made that same
proposal 10 or 15 times. It's never
An owner once put his arm
around me and said, "Son, ticket
prices are a function of supply and
demand. If we're selling out the
*tadium, we'll raise them. If we're
not, we'll drop them." The problem
is that ticket prices don't necessar-
ily fall in lock step with salaries.
The point is that I don't want to
be representing the highest-paid
athletes in a sport that has eco-
nomic problems or to send athletes
out into a society that doesn't re-
spect them. If we screen out the
oungest and most "conomically
eedy people and we -ake it im-
possible for them to come to
games, then where is the future of
D: You have the luxury at this
point to be choosy with whom you
represent. Could you explain what
you look for in a potential client?
S: Our law practice is dedi-
cated to the concept that the ath-
*ete has a unique opportunity to
serve as a role model. If an athlete
can go back to those institutions
that help nurture and shape him,
then he can make a real differ-
ence. Thirty-seven of the athletes
we represent set up scholarship
funds at their former high schools
and at the collegiate level.
At, the professional level, I've
hallenged each of the athletes to
ind something in their own back-
ground that they'd like to tackle.
Rolf Benirschke set up a program
at the San Diego Zoo. He gave
money for each field goal he
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kicked to the fund for endangered
Our athletes have tried to de-
fine things that are particularly
important to them, and to utilize
that high profile to try to make a
I don't call athletes. They call
us. So the relationship starts with a
reaching out. Many of the athletes
today are offered money and cars
and women and loans to sign with
agents on the collegiate campus
prior to their eligibility being up,
which is an NCAA rules violation.
We wait until athletes call us. And
it's not just the athletes; most of
them have panels. By the time I
got through Warren Moon's panel,
I probably could have been con-
firmed for Secretary of State.
The problem is that the field of
sports agentry is overcrowded.
There are probably ten thousand
people trying to represent the 336
players in this upcoming draft.
Anyone can be an agent, as long
as they can convince someone to
be a client. So it's very difficult for
a young man to scrutinize the
background of a prospective per-
son to represent him.
D: Was it hard to get started for
you since you expected more of
your clients than an agent who was
dealing strictly with dollars and
S: I've had some interesting
'Not too many people
would pay to see Bo
Schembechler pitch a
ball against Jerry
maybe they'd pay to
see it once'
experiences. I once had a running
back who I talked to about charity
and community involvement and
his responsibilities. He said,
"Leigh, I'm my own charity." Then
he ran the fastest 40-yard dash
that's ever been seen. I don't want
to embarrass him by saying his
Part of the difficulty with sports
is that athletes are surrounded with
external adulation. Newspaper
clippings. Large amounts of
money. The only sure thing is that
they will be transitioning out of
that experience at a very young
age. So if they're going to be out
of that career rapidly, then if they
don't have a strong sense of self-
respect and an understanding of
the importance of family and
community, then it's going to be a
severe psychological breakdown
when that career is over.
D: What do you tell potential
clients when they come in to see
you for the first time?
S: Representation is a very
different type of law than
representing a firm that produces
automobiles. Part of the fun of it is
the intense one-on-one relation-
ships that develop, so the first key
is to get to know and understand
the value system of the person
you're going to represent.
I've been in the weddings of
about 13 of my, clients now, and
when I got married in 1985, Steve
Bartkowski was my best man. I'm
the god father to three of the kids,
so these are close personal rela-
tionships that last over time.
D: Since you do have these
types of relationships, do you have
more of a personal stake when you
negotiate a contract?
S: Yes. And along those lines,
part of the difficulty with repre-
senting athletes is the enormous
injury rate. Sometimes I think I
should have gone to med school
instead of law school.
If you think about this, in 1981 I
had a draft where I had three of the
top players: Kenny Easly, a free
safety who retired because of de-
generative kidney damage he suf-
fered while playing football; Curt
Marsh, an offensive tackle for the
Los Angeles Raiders who had four
back operations and has trouble
picking up his kids; and Neil Lo-
max, who had hip transplants.
Each of those athletes are thirty
years old, but they'll carry with
them for the rest of their lives the
injuries they sustained for playing
only a very few years.
I do understand people's objec-
tions to athletic salaries, but at the
same time, nobody seems to get
too angry when Madonna makes
$100 million on a nationwide rock
tour. And nobody gets too upset
when Jack Nicholson plays the
Joker in Batman and makes $61
million, but we get angry at ath-
letic salaries. It's the entertain-
Part of it is that we think of it
as playing a game. You and I
played touch football as kids, and
how can these players get paid.
Well, it's not a game when players
are carrying injuries for the rest of
They're the main attraction. Not
too many people would pay to see
Bo Schembechler pitch a ball
against Jerry Reinsdorf. Well,
maybe they'd pay to see it once.
But athletes are the main attrac-
tion, and we're talking about very
D: What are the differences
you've noticed between the re-
spective managements of Major
League Baseball and the National
Football league in your dealings
S: Baseball is a sport where the
rules are constructed to give the
players more freedom and the right
to competitively bid. There's a
pyramid. At the bottom, players
struggle to make it out of the mi-
nor leagues and play their first
years in the majors at the mini-
mum. Then they qualify for arbitra-
tion, and their salary levels jump.
After six years, they qualify to be
free agents. Free agency has ac-
celerated the salaries in baseball.
Football has no free agency. So
in football, a player is drafted as
he enters the pro ranks and then at
the end of the career cannot switch
teams because the rules make it
prohibitively difficult. Because of
that rule of bargaining power,
baseball will have an average
salary of over $700,000 this year
and football will have $360,000.
Baseball has much more freedom
and, because of that, is easier to
I do understand
people's objections to
athletic salaries, but
at the same time,
nobody seems to get
too angry when
Madonna makes $100
million on a
nationwide rock tour
D: What do you think about the
S: Absolutely unnecessary. The
draft exists for only one reason: to
keep salaries down, because it
eliminates the free market. Nobody
tells a business student at the
University of Michigan that the
accounting firm of Smith and
Jones in Biloxi, Mississippi, has
selected them and that they're
then obligated to go down there to
work for that firm. Nobody tells
them that their only choice is to
either transfer professions or go to
The theory is that it creates
competitive balance. Well, if there
were competitive balance, how
can San Francisco make a run at
the Super Bowl drafting last every
year and Tampa Bay, who has had
the first pick in six of the last 14
years still can't make the playoffs.
Organization is the key to sport,
having good owners.
D: With a schedule as busy as
yours, why do you take the time to
do interviews such as this one?
S: The only way this society
progresses and moves forward is
when people take the time to
communicate with each other and
to talk about fundamental values
and ways to live. There were peo-
ple who were very influential in
my own life.
We get hundreds of letters from
college students, from people who
want to work to people who have
certain points of view. I think it's
important to have a voice saying
that it is possible in this society to
be conventionally successful and
still retain a more public-spirited
agenda. Quality of life means more
than just being rich.
Sports can't hide
from reality of war
In the past three weeks, sports has been in a shadow - a shadow
The thought has been on everyone's mind. Commentators, who
love to equate the push and tug of a football game to war, have
refrained from such terminology.
Do or die has taken on a different meaning these days.
Sports is a diversion from war, something which allows fans to
relieve the pressure and worry of the real world.
Last weekend, Illinois visited Ann Arbor for a basketball game. For
the first time, the Illini donned American flags on their uniforms.
As Illini coach Lou Henson explained, "We're very supportive of
the troops and this is a little way to show them our support."
And for some athletes, the Gulf crisis hits home just a little bit
Illinois' assistant coach Jimmy Collins has a son in Saudi Arabia.
The star of the game, Larry Smith, who single-handedly crushed the
Wolverines by scoring 28 points, has a brother miles away in the
Army and in the sand.
Smith said his brother Derrick is "always in my thoughts," even
when there is a game to play.
The situation has hit home for the Michigan football team, too. The
home of the Gator Bowl, Jacksonville, is a big Naval town. During the
week leading up to the Wolverines contest with Mississippi, Michigan
visited the USS Forrester. Mo's boys received a complete tour of the
ship, met the men on board, and forged some friendships.
Last week, the athletic department received a note from the ship.
The note said the men were being shipped out to the Persian Gulf.
That fact has hit home to the players. Here, they only worry about
winning a game. Now, their newfound friends, the same age as them,
are leaving and risking their lives.
And for one Wolverine, the scenes on television are just a little too
personal. Redshirt frosh Ninef Aghakhan was born in Iraq and lived in
Kuwait. He speaks fluent Assyrian. Each summer he would visit
relatives in America until one day they told him that he would
continue to live with them and gain an American education.
His parents moved to Chicago before his senior year in high school.
It allowed them to see their son star in his final season - something
he says has been very important to him.
When asked how he feels about the conflict he quietly said,
"Nothing personal, but I would rather not comment. I could tell you
what I feel out of print."
Aghakhan says he has not personally received any harassment due
to his background, but he admits that his parents are worried.
Despite what the media thinks, this is not a game. This is not some
kind of title fight, as CBS seemed to bill it, by titling it "Showdown
in the Gulf."
Ask people who know. Ask Jimmy Collins, Larry Smith, Ninef
Aghakhan or the Michigan football team. They want the diversion
sports brings. They'll say go red, white, and blue. Yet the problem hits
too close to home.
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