|Thursday, February 28
Agents of change see slow progress in sports
By David Aldridge
Special to ESPN.com
It freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit, 0 degrees Celsius.
It does this everywhere on earth. No matter what glass it's in, or whose glass it is.
That is what African-American sports agents seek in the cutthroat world of athlete representation.
They remain a minority in a world where the minority athletes they seek to represent frequently comprise the majority. And like other professionals of color, they have had slow, painstaking success in rising to the top of their field. But while dozens of top players in the NBA and NFL have chosen African-American agents, hundreds of others continue to turn to white agents and attorneys to handle the finer points of negotiations on contracts with teams and corporations seeking their endorsements.
"While there has been some progress, the progress is glacier-like," says David Ware, a veteran sports attorney whose firm has represented hundreds of NFL players over the years, most notably ex-Lion Barry Sanders. "For every one that we get, there are 150 that not only do we not get, but we don't get to talk to.
"For whatever reason, high-profile black athletes, although they talk a real good game when it comes to social responsibility and social awareness, when it comes to their business, they still have somewhat of a plantation mentality, that the other guy's ice is colder, his water is wetter, and his liquor will get you drunker."
"The argument used to be that there was an absence of competent black agents," says Bill Strickland, who, along with partner Mason Ashe, represents 30 to 40 athletes and entertainers, including Allan Houston, Rasheed Wallace and Daunte Culpepper. "I don't think that's the case any longer. But now you see players saying 'There are no black owners, so white guys can deal with other white guys better.' "
This plays out especially at the top of the NBA and NFL drafts, where rookies command tens of millions of dollars from their teams. There aren't many African-American agents watching out for the interested of the top picks, almost none standing behind the top quarterbacks selected. Black agents rarely get interviews with quarterbacks from top programs or those expected to be taken early in the first round. Many high-profile college programs steer their players to the same white agents, over and over.
"I'll probably receive a lot of criticism because of my outspokeness about racial issues and David Falk represents some of my players. Unfortunately I find it very difficult to fire David because he's white," Thompson said in 1998. "How far do you go? Do I pick a black dentist? Do I pick a black lawyer?"
Keyshawn Johnson, the flambouyant wide receiver of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, sided with Thompson. "I have an African-American attorney, but I didn't hire him because he was African-American," Johnson said. "I wanted to know if he can handle the job."
There are no hard and fast statistics available on the number of African-American agents working for clients in the various sports leagues, though there are enough for the formation of two organizations: the Black Entertainment and Sports Lawyers Association and the Black Sports Lawyers Association. But it's the same for agents as for most other arenas for professional black folk: there aren't enough of them around so that they don't know most of the others who look like them.
And make no mistake that athlete representation has become big business. Whether haggling over the contractual language in Alex Rodriguez's record-setting 10-year, $252 million deal with the Texas Rangers or arm wrestling for a bigger signing bonus for Mr. Irrelevant, the last pick in the NFL, there is a standard 3 percent commission at stake. And the money adds up.
Which is why the agent game is being consolidated by huge corporations. SFX, the gargantuan concert and promotional company, created an agent colossus three years ago when it bought out superagents David Falk and Arn Tellem, building a coast-to-coast empire of the top basketball and baseball players. The Assante Company swallowed up Leigh Steinberg, then the agent for just about every top quarterback. And International Marketing Group -- IMG -- has been the biggest, baddest agency on the planet for 20 years with its near monopoly hold on the top tennis players and golfers.
"The person that's doing the work in there is certainly a black agent, but it's not a black agency," says Lamont Smith, whose All Pro Sports and Entertainment Company represents NFL players from Eddie George to Jerome Bettis. "To me, what it's all about is empowerment and keeping the dollars circulating in our community and the decision-making. For those who want to call our own shots, it becomes a matter of how to compete with those entities. It becomes a real challenge, because guys want a lot of promises and things that are going to add to their careers."
Among those promises are what are referred to these days as "signing bonuses" -- no-interest loans given out to players still in college that are exchanged for dollars the big companies generate in endorsement contracts. The battles for shoe and clothing contracts have never been fiercer. It's an edge that most African-American agents and firms don't have at their disposal.
"People got complacent after we had some limited success and we didn't talk about it any more," Smith says.
Smith thinks black agents need to be more public when they are shut out of the process.
"We have to say to the David Carrs of the world, interview a minority, just like you're seeing with the coaching situations," Smith says. "Only when there's public discussion of the issue will there be change."
Very few American white players are represented by African-American agents. There are, of course, exceptions. Canadian basketball players Todd MacCullough of the New Jersey Nets and Steve Nash of the Dallas Mavericks are represented by California-based agents Aaron Goodwin and Bill Duffy, respectively. Duffy is also in the mix for 7-foot-6 Chinese center Yao Ming. Still, black agents feel they frequently are competing for the same black players, while white agents compete for all players.
"The irony of it is our competitors will go in there and assume that we're selling race and they'll say 'they're playing the race card,' but when it comes to the white quarterbacks, you don't ever see any one of them hire a black agent," Smith says. "And it can't be about competence. Some of us have been working on this going on 20 years."
Ware recalls: "I represented Jim Jensen, who was the original 'Slash' (the former Dolphin played quarterback, tight end and punted for Miami). When I would call people and say I represented Jim Jensen, they would say 'are you sure?' " Jensen is white.
Kennard McGuire, a partner at CSMG Sports, which represents dozens of baseball players including Danny Graves and Edgar Martinez, and footballers Antowain Smith and Ashley Ambrose, said landing quarterback Donovan McNabb has created opportunities to demonstrate their ability to handle top athletes.
"Having Donovan has been a tremendous asset," McGuire says. "The work my partner, Fletcher Smith, has done with Donovan has been unbelievable. It has made it easier for us to get in front of the quarterbacks. I have chosen not to make it an issue of color. We've gotten in front of everyone that we want to get in front of. We have proven that we do have those corporate contacts, that we can enhance your career off the field as much as on the field."
Black agents face other competitors. In recent years, numerous African-American entertainers with access to cross-promotional capital have made various entrees into the agent game. Smith had a dalliance with attorney Johnnie Cochran and Sean "P. Diddy" Combs. Rapper MC Hammer, producer/singer Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds, writer/director Spike Lee and most recently, singer Jermaine Dupri have all stuck a toe in the waters, though none have been especially successful in signing or retaining athlete clients.
But No Limit quickly fizzled in the agent biz when Williams signed an incentive-laden contract that he didn't come close to fulfilling. Within a year, Williams was begging for a new deal, left No Limit for Steinberg and the hemorrhaging began at Master P's Baton Rouge, La., compound. No Limit lost almost all of its basketball clients within six months. In the end, it was viewed as an interesting failure.
"They dilute," Ware says of the entertainer/agents. "It dilutes the field of good agents. Guys like that who have a passing interest in this don't have the time to make it work. They're all very good businessmen. But this field requires a depth of understanding. It's like a great player trying to be a coach."
But no one is ready to give up on the idea of entertainers working in tandem with established agents to form the kind of mega-company that the big white firms have. The impact of apparel companies like Sean John, Roc-a-wear and FUBU on the habits of all young people is not lost on agents looking to find connective points with young athletes.
"You see how it's impacting and inspiring designs and generating money," Strickland says. "I think somebody could sit back and say 'Let's see how we can put this together.' Think if Master P had come to Mase and I and said 'I'm going to back you guys financially; let's rock and roll.' "
Black agents also felt the pinch when William "Tank" Black was convicted in Florida of fraud, conspiracy and obstruction of justice charges last year. Black, who also represented Vince Carter, was accused of stealing up to $14 million from his prominent football clients, including Fred Taylor, Terry Allen and Jacquez Green. In the wake of the scandal, other African-American agents say that white agents have used Black's conviction to taint all African-American agents.
Ware agrees, to a point.
"The reason Tank Black was a big story was not because he was black; it was because he had a lot of good players," Ware says. "I remember Norby Walters, who was white. He got into the same kind of trouble, and he had Derrick McKey at the time, I believe the third player in the draft. What makes it a story is that you've got great players."
Walters and his partner, the late Lloyd Bloom, were convicted of conspiracy, racketeering conspiracy and other counts in 1989 for illegally signing more than 40 athletes to representation contracts before their collegiate eligibility expired. Those convictions were subsequently overturned, but the case led 23 states to enact laws that make it a crime for agents to sign players still competing on the college level.
Different sports provide different challenges. Don King once considered the idea of becoming an NBA agent but has, of course, done well while remaining a larger-than-life presence in boxing as a promoter and manager for almost 30 years with his aggressive, quasi-legal style. Leland Hardy, who negotiated Williams' deal with the Saints at No Limit Sports, is now associated with Venus and Serena Williams. And African-Americans agents are having successes in sports like baseball as well.
"It's gotten much better," says Larry Reynolds, whose California-based firm has represented more than 200 baseball players over 18 years, and who currently is the agent for Texas Rangers outfielder Carl Everett. Reynolds is the brother of Harold Reynolds, an ESPN baseball analyst and a veteran of 12 seasons in the major leagues.
"There's some walls that were knocked down years ago," Larry Reynolds says. "For me, my whole goal has been to establish a high level of integrity and credibility. It depends on what your approach is. A lot of guys want to represent everyone and their brother. My approach has been a little bit different."
In baseball, immediate gratification is not frequent, so an agent doesn't have to show his client the money right away. Most baseball players have to go through the minor leagues for at least a few years before breaking through to the majors and expecting a big payday.
Says McGuire: "You have to be very patient with baseball (players). I may get a guy in high school. Not many people are willing to wait four to six years."
"The toughest thing to do in baseball is not only to put on a salary arbitration case, but to win one," Reynolds says. "And we've done that. People who are educated will say 'If he's done that, he can do whatever else is needed.' "
There are successes, to be sure. And a marriage of a veteran agency with unlimited capital is still a possibility. Some dream of a day when a superstar black athlete will chose to make a definitive statement by going with black representation.
"Can you imagine what would have happened to a black agency if Tiger had chosen them to represent him?" Ware wonders.
It's all they've ever asked for.
David Aldridge is a reporter and NBA analyst for ESPN and a regular contributor to ESPN.com