Leigh Steinberg is making a comeback as a high profile sports agent after a self-imposed exile after many years. At one time one of, if not the most powerful agents in the country, Steinberg dealt with many issues the past few years including alcoholism, divorce and lawsuits against former partners for stealing his clients and bankruptcy.
But in 2013, he’s clean….hasn’t had a drink in almost three and a half years, he got his NFL certification back and has a healthy outlook and an exuberance for his work that belies someone his age.
In fact, speaking with him on Friday evening via the telephone in his office in California he sounds like a man half his age (he’s 64), quick to laugh and was genuinely excited to get back to what he knows and loves.
Steinberg is credited as the real life inspiration of the sports agent from the film Jerry Maguire, and it was pretty true to life as the film’s director, Cameron Crowe followed Steinberg for nearly three years getting all the nuances down.
Back in the day his client list was a who’s who in the sports world and included Steve Bartkowski, Steve Young, Troy Aikman, Warren Moon, Bruce Smith, Thurman Thomas, Kordell Stewart, Jeff George, Ben Roethlisberger, Myron Rolle, Matt Leinart, Mark Brunell, Ricky Williams, Howie Long, Eric Karros, Dusty Baker, Lennox Lewis, and Oscar de la Hoya.
So when the opportunity arose for Pro Football Central to talk one-on-one with Steinberg for an interview, it was a no-brainer. He graciously took time and spoke at length about a variety of subjects.
His memory is sharp and as he speaks about one topic, he’ll lead right into another. There was neither hesitation nor holding back and after speaking for an extended time it is easy to see why he was so successful.
Here are some of the highlights of our conversation:
PFC: So now you’re re-certified with the NFL and ready to jump back into the process?
LS: “I am re-certified and the time period begins October 1st, so this is the first time that it is active to go out with players.”
PFC: Being back in the game now, has the landscape changed much for sports agents?
LS: “I think what’s changed primarily is that the system for negotiating for rookies in the NFL and in the NBA has become much less creative… There’s much less flexibility, so the advent of the hardcap in the NFL that there really isn’t an infinity of options to make the contracts better.”
“So in the old days,” he said, “I’d do voids of years, buybacks and all sorts of interesting techniques to avoid the salary cap. But now they’ve essentially been eliminated, there’s much less to do and it puts much more emphasis on second careers and the health of a player and the mentoring of a player, it goes back to things we are quite confident in.”
PFC: You were known as an agent that not only looked after his clients during their career but long-term and post career as well. With all the concussion issues in the NFL how do you balance the risk factor that in certain players is elevated?
LS: I think that the problem is that athletes from the time they play Pop Warner football are bred in a culture of denial. They’re around people for whom injury is something that is really dreaded because the player becomes a training room player or is excluded from the group.”
“So they go into a system of denial, and the implications for their long-term health don’t seem to motivate them. It’s very difficult especially in the area of concussions, because that is the one injury that is difficult than all the rest because it affects the brain, memory, consciousness and what it means to be a human being.”
“I’ve held six seminars with neurologists from across the country on the issue as early as the ‘90s because I wanted my clients to know…but we discovered in 2006 that three or more concussions caused a much higher risk for ALS, premature senility, dementia, elevated rates of depression and a chronic encephalopathy which is very dangerous.”
“I now believe that the very act of an offensive lineman hitting a defensive lineman on every play produces a low-level sub-concussive hit. So you could have a player who played high school, college and pro ball with over 10,000 sub-concussive hits…not one of which would ever been acknowledged as a concussion. And yet the aggregate of that is much worse than three concussions that someone may have suffered.”
“It is a very hard area, because the damage occurs and then some time passes and then it becomes evidenced…I call it the ticking time bomb and an undiagnosed health epidemic.”
PFC: Speaking on a personal level, do you think after being out of the game for a few years that you can come all the way back to the pinnacle of your industry or is it not an important thing to you at this stage of your career.
LS: “You know…I really don’t want to compete with my past and in football we ended up with 60 1st round draft picks, eight of them were the very 1st pick in the 1st round, there were weekends I had half the starting QBs in the league.”
“Seven of the players have gone on to the Hall of Fame and I’m not looking to replicate that again, I am looking for role-model type players who are willing to do what we think is important for their lives. Which is where they re-trace their roots and set up scholarship funds at the high school and collegiate level and to set up foundations at the pro level that attacks some basic problems.”
Steinberg talked at length about some of the programs his clients were involved in including a home-buying program for single mothers, giving them their first opportunity to buy their own home and where Home Depot comes in and helps furnish the home.
He spoke about and is justifiably proud at helping some players build relationships with community leaders and set themselves up for second careers and prepare them for life after the pro sports scene.
“This generation of athletes has every opportunity to excel, as in the media like Troy Aikman or Desmond Howard or in the business world, I don’t think those types of considerations go out of style”
“There will still be parents, and athletes that are interested in that kind of focus,”
While Steinberg is taking it a day at a time, he emailed his students at Chapman University where he is now teaching a Sports Law course his feelings on coming back.
“The American people relish the fall of the high and mighty. People get away from their own troubles by escaping into a celebrity driven press where they can feel better about themselves from the failures of others. … But people also love the comeback story because they feel that everyone will experience adversity and want the potential for rebirth and revival.”
PFC: Well you already answered my next question as to who do you as an agent target for a client.
LS: (Laughs) “You know, we always profiled players that were interested in second careers, in being a role model, those are people that I think I can help. And if they’re not interested in that, then they’re probably better served elsewhere.”
PFC: What was it like for you to introduce your client, Warren Moon into the NFL Hall of Fame? (The only agent ever to introduce a player into Canton)
LS: “I can’t think of a more wonderful testimonial than doing that because Warren and I started back when he was at the University of Washington, then went up to Canada for six years and then for 17 in the NFL.”
“So we almost grew up together and to watch a player go to the Hall of Fame which is the ultimate achievement and to be able to present him and to watch Troy Aikman and Steve Young be inducted was really special. How a player comes out at the other end of the system is how we really judge ourselves.”
PFC: With your new company (Steinberg Sports & Entertainment) you’re delving into different parts of the industry, the marketing, and entertainment side of things. Is this breaking new ground or is anyone else doing this?
LS: This is sort of a trend that, the aggregation of athletic talent in football, baseball, basketball and other action sports can be combined with the marketing arm and that leads to a virtual studio that can do motion pictures, video games, televisions, apps for every platform, health and safety products…”
“We’ve seen merger mania come into our industry and a number of people are attempting to do this. We first tried back in 2000 to do this after we were purchased by a Canadian firm and I got a little into it and then….lost interest.”
PFC: Looking back at what’s been an interesting career, would you change anything?
LS: “No I had wonderful clients, charitable community programs, great experiences and there is nothing like watching Steve Young (client) come off the field in the Super Bowl in Miami where he won and hear him say, ‘the monkey is off my back!’ or watch Troy Aikman’s life change dramatically at the same time.”
“And part of the satisfaction is the teaching counseling role….. I love football, it has become so dominant than it ever was. Last year three of the top Nielsen Shows were nighttime NFL football games.”
“This country has gone pro football crazy and the second most popular sport is college football and being right in the middle of that is right where I wanted to be.”
Speaking about Jerry McGuire, Steinberg talked about the three years Cameron Crowe the director of the film followed him to the NFL Draft, Pro-Scouting Days, games and practices as well Super Bowl parties and the big game itself.
Steinberg says, “I took Cuba Gooding Jr. down to the Super Bowl and had him pretend he was a wide receiver for a week.” He added, “they came to my office and took pictures of me with a client and superimposed Tom Cruise’s head on there.”
“The mission statement kinda of evokes the charity requirement interests we have, and I think it humanized the agentry to a certain extent and showed that the close relationships that come out of it that make it different than any other type of work”
Steinberg went on to explain that Tim McDonald safety for the Cardinals was the closest to the term “Show Me The Money” quote but it was a far cry from Gooding’s scene in the film.
“Tim was a strong safety for the Cardinals and he became a free agent and Cameron (Crowe) watched that process as I walked him from team to team and as I walked him upstairs in the hotel, Cameron was interviewing Tim and ‘MoneyLine’ was on in the background with Lou Dobbs and Cameron asked Tim ‘What are you looking for in the experience?’ to research his film.”
“To which Tim said he was looking for respect, economic security and then that’s where the line differs. Cameron said he remembers Tim saying ‘Show Me The Money’ but Tim never really said that but so many of those lines became part of the culture.”
Steinberg laughed as he recounted for many years after that if he walked through an airport he would be deluged with requests to say the line…which he politely declined.
PFC: I wish I had you in my contract negotiations with the US Army, on my last re-enlistment in Special Forces before becoming an officer I got a $25,000 signing bonus and thought I fleeced the government….we could have re-negotiated my contract.
LS: Well, (laughing) here’s the thing….they didn’t realize there were incentive clauses involved. The clauses that paid you an extra $20,000 for every successful mission completed and that you didn’t have to work on any day that ended in a Y.”
Which leads one to wonder if the government renegotiates….
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