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But as court suits pitting athletes against agents proliferate, the Sorkin scandal no longer seems so shocking. Now the sports world seemingly even has its own version of Jim and Tammy in the person of Dallas agent Joe Courrege, who won the trust of several Cowboy players through his devout Christianity. Courrege played religious tapes in his car while driving players around and arranged to have one of them, safety Bill Bates, appear as a guest on TV evangelist Pat Robertson's 700 Club. Last year Bates and three other players filed suit against Courrege for allegedly defrauding them of $200,000 through the use of fictitious names and bogus corporations in 14 real estate investments; Bates reached an out-of-court settlement with Courrege, but the suits of his three other former clients are pending. "What I found out is that he beats you over the head with his Bible and has his hands in your pocket at the same time," Dallas linebacker Jeff Rohrer, a plaintiff in one of those suits, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram . Courrege has denied wrongdoing in all the cases.
At the root of many athletes' financial woes is the fact that agents are subject to few educational or professional requirements, only the vaguest ethical standards and a bare minimum of regulation.
As recently as a dozen years ago there were relatively few agents. Today there are thousands. In an effort to exercise a measure of control, the NFL Players Association requires agents who negotiate contracts for veterans to register for certification, which means they pay a $100 application fee and submit to a background check. The union has certified 700 agents, down from a high of 1,500 in 1983, and that doesn't include those who handle negotiations only for rookies and aren't obliged to register. The NFL, mind you, has only some 1,550 players. Similarly, the NBA has only 276 players, yet 208 agents have registered with its players association. Major league baseball is in the final stages of establishing a registration program. The ranks of agents are further swollen by those working hockey, golf, tennis, track and horse racing.
Even when they aren't doing anything as dramatic as thumbing their noses at pro owners by holding out star players or signing college undergraduates in violation of NCAA rules, agents have a knack for routinely rubbing others—the public, the press, management—the wrong way. Syd Thrift, general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, complains that agents "get to meddling, calling up and wanting to know why so-and-so isn't playing or isn't a starting pitcher instead of a reliever."
Some teams are wary of certain agents. In 1981 Detroit Tiger G.M. Jim Campbell traded Steve Kemp to the Chicago White Sox for Chet Lemon, in part, says Campbell, because the club had despaired of dealing with Kemp's agent, Dick Moss. Moss, the former executive counsel to the Major League Baseball Players Association, notes that Kemp was traded after twice beating the Tigers in arbitration. " Jim Campbell does not like to lose," Moss says. Former Montreal outfielder Jim Wohlford believes, though the team denies it, that the Montreal Expos refused to re-sign him last fall partly because Moss—who was then battling the club on behalf of free-agent outfielder Andre Dawson—was his agent. "He's not the most popular agent in baseball," says Wohlford, who is now training to be a stockbroker with E.F. Hutton in Visalia, Calif.
The trick is to find the right agent and, as the need arises, the right accountant and financial planner. (A big reason many athletes get into trouble is that they fail to realize that the man who works out the contract isn't necessarily the best choice for these other tasks.) Unfortunately, all too often the process of linking athletes to agents begins with the agents recruiting college athletes clandestinely and giving them money in disregard of NCAA rules. The prohibition against college athletes employing agents until their eligibility has expired has been repeatedly broken in dealings with football and basketball players. No case has been more flagrant than that of the agent team of Norby Walters and Lloyd Bloom, who paid thousands of dollars to sign several undergraduates before their eligibility expired (SI, Aug. 3). When the athlete is a willing, even eager, sometimes grasping, accomplice; when his most urgent financial goals are a house for his parents and a Porsche for himself; when life seems endless and his physical skills unshatterable—that's not the best foundation for a mature approach to long-term planning. Beyond that, one must wonder whether an agent who encourages an athlete to cheat by signing early might not be the sort who will cheat when handling that athlete's finances.
"As soon as you give a player money, you have corrupted the relationship," says agent Richard Woods of Mobile, Ala. "As opposed to your being the employee and the player the employer, which is how it's supposed to be, it's a creditor-debtor relationship."
Questionable recruiting practices go on outside college sports as well. In tennis, prospects in their early teens are plied with free equipment and promises of berths in senior-level tournaments. In baseball, agents sign up young minor leaguers to long-term, almost Faustian, deals; new rules adopted by the major league players' union and due to take effect next year are designed to correct such abuses. Where some agents entice blue-chip football and basketball players with money and cars, others offer to handle the minor league contracts of baseball prospects for free as a way of getting their hooks into them should they reach the majors. Latin players are particularly vulnerable to exploitation. Agents have gone to Latin America and signed promising youngsters to complex and restrictive contracts written in English. The baseball union's new rules seek to curb such practices by specifying that contracts be written in the athlete's native language.
Once they get athletes under contract, some agents betray their clients by getting too cozy with management officials, reportedly even accepting kickbacks from them. "General managers say, 'I'll give you $50,000 under the table if you agree to a lower signing bonus," says Rev. Ken Fairley, who is the adviser to Marcus Dupree, the former Oklahoma and USFL running back. Although it is surely not as common a practice as Fairley seems to imply, one NFL general manager, who asked to remain anonymous, says that it has indeed happened.
Disreputable agents have lots of ways of making money. To assure themselves a bigger immediate fee, some will negotiate short-term contracts when, for tax reasons, the athlete's interests might be better served by a longer contract or deferred payments. Others commit the opposite sin, tying the athlete to a long-term contract when his interests might be better served by a shorter one. They often do so because big multiyear deals get more publicity. Besides, somebody else might be representing the athlete next time around, so why not make the current contract for as many years as possible and maximize your fees?