In their seeming blindness to conflicts of interest and agents' other dubious practices, athletes give the impression that while they're God's favorites in one respect—their possession of enviable physical skills—they're his dolts when it comes to handling their financial affairs. That's probably not the case. Athletes as a group are not dumber than the public at large—con artists and overreaching accountants have cut a swath there too—but are younger and wealthier and more famous than most of the rest of us. That makes them an inviting target for unscrupulous agents, and when one of them is victimized by an agent, it's usually big news.
Still, athletes have been almost unbelievably trusting. Many of them are sheltered and coddled from the first time they throw a pass or swing a bat, and they grow accustomed to letting others take care of their lives. In his autobiography, Behind Closed Doors, Woolf told of the time one of his clients, former NHL star Derek Sanderson, was staying at a hotel in Honolulu and called Woolf in Boston several times to complain that his room had no hot water. Sanderson wanted Woolf to talk to the manager about getting the problem fixed. "What astounds me is I did it," Woolf says.
Such dependence is not uncommon. "Mostly what athletes want to do is play football or baseball," says Los Angeles agent Dan Grigsby. "If you can make something easy for them, they say, 'I trust you—take care of it for me.' "
To be sure, some athletes get into trouble by not following their agent's advice. "The control agents have is a lot less than people perceive," says Montreal agent Morden Lazarus. "Athletes rarely follow advice. They'll have a deferred-payment plan set up, and then they'll need money and break it."
In dealing with agents, athletes are often rash, ill-informed, foolish—and some are downright dishonest. "Some of them are the biggest hustlers in the world," says Steve Ehrhart, a former agent who has also been a team and league official in the USFL.
"They're going to go for the bucks, man," says former Lions and Rams wide receiver Ron Jessie, who has worked as an agent. "When they make business decisions, they don't have enough integrity to stick by those decisions. They'll sign with four or five people and lead people on as if they're going to do business with them. It's a combination of the way the agent business is now and the way the guys are coming out of school now. The two together. It makes for a corrupt system."
The deeper one digs into the question of agent wrongdoing, the harder it is to tell the bad guys from the good guys. College officials rail against abuses by agents, yet colleges are guilty, in ways both direct and subtle, of encouraging agent abuses. Some coaches are whispered to have accepted money from agents to help steer athletes the agents' way. And the rigidity of NCAA rules that prevent athletes from receiving spending money from the school or holding even part-time jobs makes them ripe for under-the-table payments. NCAA rules also prevent college baseball and hockey players from using agents to feel out pro teams about their market value while they try to decide whether to enter early pro drafts. As a result, says agent Bucky Woy, "signing bonuses in baseball are going down because the kids don't know whether they're worth $100,000 or $200,000."
Pro sports officials are culpable too. Some of them have sought to undermine the agent-athlete relationship by offering an athlete a deficient contract and then spreading the word that the agent is inept. Marvin Miller, former executive director of the major league baseball players' union, says that despite their public expressions of concern, some front-office people welcome agent incompetence because it gives them the upper hand in salary negotiation and arbitration.
So one may argue that the counterbalance historically provided by—or at least expected from—sports agents is still needed today. The rival leagues that helped drive up player salaries—the AFL, ABA, USFL and the rest—have either disbanded or have been absorbed, and management today is hanging tough, refusing to bid for free agents in baseball and steadfastly resisting—at this writing—unfettered free agency in football.
It has fallen to the players associations, whose rise to prominence has paralleled the rise of agents, to wrestle with management on those issues. But the unions find themselves vying with management and disreputable agents simultaneously—no simple task.