It is hard to overstate the havoc that Norby Walters has wrought in his brief career as a sports agent. In the nearly three years since this fast-talking show-biz booking agent decided to represent athletes, he has become the most controversial operative in a field that thrives on turmoil and contention. He has made enemies, headlines and mistakes in profusion, prompting urgent calls by both sports and government officials for reform of the sports-agent game to protect athletes from his supposedly dangerous ilk.
For his part, the 56-year-old Walters, whose activities are under investigation by the FBI and a federal grand jury in Chicago, claims to have done nothing illegal or immoral. He says he is the innocent victim of jealous, rumor-planting rival agents, sensationalizing reporters and unscrupulous collegians who have robbed him blind. He admits only that he paid and signed college football and basketball players—an act of unappreciated generosity, as he sees it. "I've given my blood money to these kids," he says. Walters makes this assertion with an odd mixture of swagger and despair. On the one hand, he asserts that the money he has spent on athletes is, by the standards of the entertainment industry from which he springs, small potatoes. On the other hand, he allows that his foray into sports may have been his Waterloo. "On Day One, if I had known this thing would have gone into this kind of investment, I wouldn't have done it," he says, "because I never dreamt it would be this tough or this strange or this exasperating.... I'm sick right now from this whole thing."
In tandem with Lloyd Bloom, 28, his principal associate in the New York firm of World Sports & Entertainment, Inc., Walters sought to corner the market in blue-chip college football players, and it looked for a while as if he might actually succeed. Expending vast sums of money—Bloom puts the total at $800,000—World Sports & Entertainment signed at least 30 athletes, including some of the biggest names in college sports. Walters and Bloom gave money to at least five of this year's first-round NFL draft choices before their eligibility expired, and signed all of them to contracts.
The players who took Walters's money while they still had eligibility remaining violated NCAA rules. As Walters points out, this wasn't a first. Mike Trope, for one, a Los Angeles-based agent, admitted signing a number of underclassmen as far back as 1978. But things got messy for Walters when 1) some of his signees got it into their heads to defect to other agents and 2) Walters, getting it into his head that he had been wronged, decided to sue the athletes and to speak out in the newspapers. Since then the situation has taken a succession of sensational twists and turns:
•On March 16, Kathe Clements, an associate of sports agent Steve Zucker and the wife of former Notre Dame quarterback Tom Clements, was slashed and beaten in her office in the Chicago suburb of Skokie, Ill., by a man wearing a ski mask and gloves. Zucker says he and Kathe Clements had signed three of Walters's former clients—Cincinnati Bengals (and former Tennessee) wide receiver Tim McGee, ex-Nebraska running back Doug DuBose (now with San Francisco) and University of Washington defensive lineman Reggie Rogers, the Detroit Lions' No. 1 pick—and that Walters and Bloom had upbraided Clements over the phone. Zucker also claims that Bloom confronted Clements at the Senior Bowl in January about a Zucker client who allegedly owed Bloom and Walters money, telling her that "people who don't pay their debts can have their hands broken." Michael Langer, a Skokie police lieutenant, at first said Walters was a suspect in the attack on Clements, but so far police have found no evidence to link Walters or WSE to the incident.
•Concerned about the Clements attack and other reports linking Walters and Bloom to possible illegal activities, the FBI opened an investigation and a federal grand jury in Chicago began a broad inquiry in May of Walters's and Bloom's work as sports agents. The grand jury, which is expected to sit through the summer and possibly longer, has subpoenaed dozens of college and pro players and several college administrators and is focusing on allegations that Walters or his associates were engaged in fraud and racketeering. The grand jury also is considering whether to indict athletes for defrauding their universities, for whom they sign statements each year swearing that they have broken no NCAA rules, as well as with tax evasion, for possibly failing to report money received from WSE. Proving some of the fraud allegations has been difficult, according to a source with knowledge of the investigation.
•The NFL Players Association said it had received phone calls from two former WSE clients who claimed they had been threatened by Walters after leaving him. "Both players' stories were almost identical," an NFLPA source told The Atlanta Constitution. "They said Walters called them and told them, 'I'm going to talk to my people in Las Vegas and get them to break your legs.' " These were but two of several reported threats. One former Walters client, William Harris, a University of Texas tight end who transferred to Bishop College in Dallas last year and was chosen by the St. Louis Cardinals in the seventh round in this year's NFL draft, told SI that Walters didn't threaten him when he left WSE but that "he threatened a couple of my football-playing buddies. He told one, a wide receiver, he'd have his knees broken." The New York Times reported that the FBI office in Dallas has a tape recording on which Bloom can be heard threatening to break the hands of former SMU wide receiver Ron Morris if Morris signed with another agent. And in the most startling revelation, former Auburn running back Brent Fullwood, the Packers' No. 1 draft choice, who has admitted signing with Walters and taking money from him while still eligible for college football, told The Constitution that he testified to the Chicago grand jury that Bloom had threatened to "bump off" Fullwood's current agent, George Kickliter, for signing Fullwood away from WSE. Bloom denies the charge and says he never threatened anyone. Walters also denies threatening anyone.
•Walters filed breach-of-contract suits against six of the players who left him and asked that the players be forced to repay all the money he had given to them. These include five of this year's first-round NFL draft choices—Rogers, Fullwood, Purdue defensive back Rod Woodson (Steelers), Pitt defensive end-linebacker Tony Woods (Seahawks) and Clemson running back Terrence Flagler (49ers)—as well as the Bills' second-year running back, Ronnie Harmon, who has admitted receiving $54,172.92 from Walters beginning in his junior year at Iowa. "That's not so much money," Harmon told SI. "That's over two years. What's that, $27,000 a year? I had living expenses—an apartment and a car." Because Harmon's contract falls under the jurisdiction of the NFLPA, his case will be decided by a players' association arbitrator. A hearing was held June 10 and a decision is pending. At the same time, Rogers is suing Walters and G. Patrick Healy, an attorney from Tacoma who allegedly loaned him money, for misrepresentation. Two former Florida players, defensive back Adrian White and running back Frankie Neal, also are suing to have their contracts with Walters voided.
•In addition to Harmon, Fullwood, Rogers, McGee, Harris, former Texas running back Edwin Simmons and former Southern Mississippi wide receiver Andrew Mott all told SI that they took money while still eligible for college football. Woodson, Flagler and Woods have also been identified as having done so. (NCAA rules, it should be noted, do not penalize schools in such cases unless it is established that school officials either knew or should have known of the payments and did not immediately suspend the players.)
•At least four college athletes were declared ineligible for their upcoming senior seasons because of their involvement with WSE. On July 15, Ohio State declared ineligible wide receiver Cris Carter, a Heisman Trophy candidate, after Carter admitted to school officials that he had signed a contract and accepted a $5,000 loan from Walters and Bloom in May 1986 and had subsequently accepted monthly payments totaling $1,800 (see box, page 38). Previously, Alabama had declared basketball star Derrick McKey ineligible for signing with and taking a $2,500 promissory note from WSE. McKey entered the June NBA draft and was selected in the first round by Seattle. Pitt defensive back Teryl Austin lost his eligibility for his senior season after he admitted signing with and taking money from WSE. Pitt also declared running back Charles Gladman ineligible after he refused to cooperate with NCAA and university investigations into WSE's dealings with Panther players. Gladman denies involvement with Walters's firm. More players may yet be declared ineligible, although Bloom said they won't be WSE clients. Robert Berry, a Boston College law professor who is representing Carter in his dealings with the NCAA and the NFL, recently told the Associated Press: "I think of your top players, a good 50 percent have received some type of payment."