The reports about pressure on Cowboys lineman Tyron Smith to give money to family members, reaching the stage of 911 calls, resonated with me. In 25 years around professional athletes, as a player agent and a team executive, I learned that such situations are more prevalent than most people realize and have no easy answers.
The recent ESPN 30 for 30 film "Broke" detailed athletes' reckless spending and financial problems later in life. It gave a glimpse of some of the factors pulling on a player's portfolio. The Smith story provides another look into the underbelly of this issue.
Behind many players is what I call the "whisper crew" -- a group whispering to the player what he wants to hear instead of what he needs to hear. It usually consists of hometown friends, former high school or college teammates and all types of "advisers," but the one constant is family. Often one family member is doing most of the whispering, sometimes with the insidious role of pulling at the player's purse strings while stroking his ego and insecurities.
The more extended family in the crew, the more I worried. Although this is hardly statistically sound data, I always count the number of the people in a player's picture at the draft taken right after he is selected. The more people in that picture, the more I worry about the financial future of that player, because many of those people will be on his payroll.
I once represented a player with an older brother who I suspected was abusing drugs and who repeatedly made requests for financial assistance. I convinced the player that the brother's requests should come through me, and for a while, it worked. When the brother didn't like the answers I was providing, however, he went back to contacting the player directly.
One day, the brother came to the player with a request for $100,000 to start a recording company. Con man that he was, he convinced the player he had several established hip-hop artists ready to come on board. I vehemently warned my client that, as tough as it was to hear, the money would go straight into his brother's arm and cause problems for both of them.
Despite my protestations -- one of the few times as an agent when I actually screamed and a long letter warning against the loan, which I still have -- the player wrote that check. He knew I was right but shrugged his shoulders and said, "Hey, it's family."
The brother used the money for drugs, and the player never received a dime back. He could use that money now.
Although the amounts and circumstances vary, this story is a microcosm of what many athletes deal with. They often succumb to the requests of mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, cousins or uncles with the exasperated response: "It's family."
This belies a myth about athletes' wanting to play close to home. Most would rather not. They do not want to deal with an extended family's requests for money, tickets, signed jerseys, time and more. Some well-known players have turned down opportunities to play close to home for this very reason.
"What do you do?"
At the Packers, we once had a prominent player getting into trouble on a weekly basis. (Yes, a player can get into trouble even in Green Bay.) It was affecting our view of him in the front office, and it was affecting his performance on the field. When I looked closer at the situation, however, I found that in every instance the troublemaker was not the player but his brother, who lived with him.
I saw the brother after a game and asked him to come to my office, where I was very direct:
"What do you do?"
"What exactly do you do?"
"What do you mean, Mr. Brandt?"
"While your brother is practicing and preparing for games, what do you do here?"
"I make sure he's right."
"What does that mean?"
"I get his car washed, take care of his tickets and deal with all that [stuff]."
"Here's the problem. You sit around all day and wait for him to come home and then go out, and he needs to be resting and preparing, not partying. Do you understand that?"
"What do you mean, Mr. Brandt?"
"I mean you need to find more things to occupy your time and let him focus on football, not on being your wingman every night."
He looked at me and I thought maybe I was getting through. Then he asked:
"What about like two nights a week?"
I smiled. "What about zero or one?"
Fortunately, the brother reined in the partying and left Green Bay soon after our talk. The player's performance on and off the field improved. He appreciated that I was willing to step in.
The combination of players having a hard time saying no and the fact that these requests come from family members is a toxic one. If players are unable to be the bad guy in denying requests for assistance, they need to learn to do so or have someone else willing to do so.
Many times, the agent is blamed for steering a player's money to the wrong people or allowing these financial drains from family to occur. I cannot defend agents who commingle players' funds or direct players to unscrupulous financial advisers, but I can empathize with agents' delicate dealings with families.
In many cases, a certain family member is "the client" more than the player, because the agent deals with him or her more than the athlete. That family member may be the person requesting or demanding financial support from the player. Saying no to that family member may be the right thing to do in theory, but it could lead to that agent becoming the ex-agent.
The Smith story is not an isolated case, although few escalate to this point. Ultimately, this is an issue of trust. One would hope that a player can trust family to do what is best for him, but that is not always the case.
I hope the exposure of the Smith story, the "Broke" film and continued awareness of this issue will slowly but surely bring a change to a longstanding problem.