|Friday, January 10
Updated: January 12, 6:15 PM ET
Despite obstacles, Dunn might have landed No. 1
By Darren Rovell
David Dunn is hardly done.
The sports agent whose split from partners Leigh Steinberg and Jeff Moorad will cost him a $44.6 million jury award, continues to rack up an impressive roster of new clients expected to be selected in the first round of the upcoming NFL draft.
Although many competing agents had speculated that his defeat in the high-profile breach-of-contract suit would force Dunn to close up shop, he has locked up USC quarterback Carson Palmer, the Heisman Trophy winner and potential No. 1 overall pick in April's draft. Dunn also has signed University of Louisville quarterback Dave Ragone, another expected top-10 selection, and University of Illinois wide receiver Brandon Lloyd, who could be picked in the late first round.
"We interviewed 15 agents, 12 in face-to-face meetings, and we felt David was the most qualified," said Bill Palmer, Carson's father. "We spoke to many people, including some in the league (about this verdict), and there wasn't much concern. The only people who were telling us that it was a real negative were other competing agents."
After leaving Steinberg, Moorad & Dunn in February 2001, Dunn and two other SMD agents founded Athletes First, a competing sports agency. Last season, the firm represented more than 50 NFL players, including New York Giants quarterback Kerry Collins, Buffalo Bills quarterback Drew Bledsoe, Detroit Lions quarterback Joey Harrington and Cincinnati Bengals running back Corey Dillon. Only Cleveland Browns linebacker Jamir Miller and Minnesota Vikings kicker Gary Andersen have defected since the verdict, according to Mark Humenik, general counsel for Athletes First.
In November, a jury ruled that Dunn breached the exclusivity contract he signed with SMD and awarded Steinberg and Moorad $44.6 million. On Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Lew denied a motion to include another $23.5 million in damages. If Dunn's lawyers are unable to convince Lew to overturn the verdict and order a new trial during a Feb. 10 hearing, the future of Dunn's firm could be up in the air.
"This has to be a huge setback," said Bill Duffy, another sports superagent who represents Chicago Bulls guard Jay Williams, Dallas Mavericks guard Steve Nash and Houston Rockets center Yao Ming. "Financially, I don't know how he is going to recover with that verdict staring him in the eye."
With a court date scheduled to hear the motion for a new trial, Humenik said it is premature to speculate on the future of Athletes First. "We are going to stay in business and make sure that our clients needs are met," he said.
Meanwhile, Dunn is still on the recruiting trail for other top prospects who will enter the draft. Other players in this year's draft class include Washington State quarterback Jason Gesser, University of Texas offensive lineman Derrick Dockery, USC defensive lineman Bernard Riley and Oklahoma wide receiver Antwone Savage.
"The fact that he has amassed the client list he has with everything against him, is really remarkable," said one high-profile football agent who requested anonymity. "He obviously has a very persuasive speech and is telling people that he's not going to be significantly disciplined."
Ragone and Lloyd did not return calls seeking comment. Dunn was unavailable for comment on Friday.
On Friday, Lew rejected a request by Steinberg's attorneys for a permanent injunction against Dunn, which would have stopped him from representing players through 2004 -- when the non-compete contract that Dunn signed with SMD would have expired -- or when Dunn completed payments to Steinberg and Moorad.
Instead, Lew ruled that such discipline would have to come from the NFL Players Association. Last Friday, the NFLPA filed complaints to its disciplinary committee against Dunn and his partner, Joby Branion, for numerous rules violations involving agent conduct.
"The complaint was filed based almost entirely on the evidence in this case and the jury's findings that they violated state law, interfered with a contractual relationship and engaged in unfair business practices," said Richard Berthelsen, general counsel for the NFLPA.
Dunn has 30 days to answer the complaint. The NFLPA can impose disciplinary action that could range from a reprimand to de-certification.
Meanwhile, Dunn continues to expand his client list.
"What he does for his clients goes beyond what other people say about him," Humenik said.
But Steinberg's attorney, David Cornwell, claims that one of the reasons Dunn is doing so well in the wake of the verdict may be because an NFLPA official has recommended Dunn's services to inquiring players.
"At Dunn's request, Mark Levin, the NFLPA's director of Salary Cap & Agent Administration, has spoken directly to family members of players that Dunn was recruiting and endorsed Dunn as an NFLPA Contract Advisor," reads the document that was filed in court on Thursday, but was not admitted to the case. "One such family member has advised me that Levin's endorsement was a critical factor in the player's decision to believe Dunn's representation that the jury verdict and the related court proceedings are 'no big deal.' "
On Friday, Levin denied that he had ever endorsed Dunn to anyone. He said he only confirmed that Dunn was certified by the NFLPA.
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at Darren.firstname.lastname@example.org