Like serpents they infest the gardens and groves of American sport, poised to strike at the wealth professional athletes earn in such plenty. This, anyway, is the popular perception of sports agents, and it's a generalization based on a great many sordid and all-too-true particulars. Sports agents are amazingly numerous, and for the unscrupulous among them, the athlete is easy prey. Time was when the stereotypical agent was the gutsy character who took on the big bad owner and wrung from him his client's due. But as athletes started making hundreds of thousands of dollars, then millions, ethical agents watched helplessly as the self-serving, the incompetent and, indeed, the criminal debased the profession's image.
Such is the disgust that the new breed engenders that "sleazyagent" might as well be a single word. "Vipers," New York Giants general manager George Young calls them. Says Reggie Rogers, rookie defensive end for the Detroit Lions, "They're all bad—all agents." The word that comes to the lips of Jerry Vainisi, former general manager of the Chicago Bears, is "parasites."
Ed Hookstratten is a Beverly Hills entertainment lawyer who is also a sports agent, but he says, "I don't like to be lumped in and called a sports agent. I was the Rams' general counsel for eight years. What I saw come through the door representing the players was an embarrassment."
San Francisco attorney Ed King has made a lucrative practice out of suing agents and advisers who allegedly defraud athletes. He says with barely restrained glee that his specialty has real "growth potential." "If the worst you can say about one of them [agents] is that he's incompetent, that probably puts him among the top five percent in the sports business," says King.
For all the antiagent sentiment, the fact remains that few athletes nowadays are so bold—or foolhardy—as to venture into the world of sports commerce without an agent. Babe Ruth benefited from having an agent of sorts—a former sports cartoonist named Christy Walsh, who steered the Babe into annuities, enabling the ballplayer to weather the stock market crash of 1929. If such a conspicuous early example doesn't prove that agents can help, the issue was all but settled when latter-day negotiators like Bob Woolf and Jerry Kapstein took advantage of the infusion of big TV money, the establishment of rival basketball, football and hockey leagues and the advent of free agency in baseball to wrangle enormous salaries for their clients in the 1960s and '70s. In individual sports, agents have also fared well; witness the fortune that Gordon Baskin has made for track star Edwin Moses or, even more notably, that Mark McCormack's Cleveland-based International Management Group has made for his clients in golf, tennis and other sports.
As a group agents can be credited with redressing a historical imbalance. "A player who did not have much experience in the business world was completely outmanned in his negotiations with the general managers," says Tom Condon, an attorney-agent in Kansas City who played guard for the Chiefs for 11 years and was president of the NFL Players Association. Agent Leigh Steinberg puts the matter more bluntly: "The evolution of sports agentry stems from the abuse of players by management for many, many years."
Most athletes are understandably more comfortable letting agents negotiate their contracts. A good and trustworthy agent can reasonably be expected to get a better deal than the average athlete, especially the youngest and least savvy. "It allows a balance to remain in force," says Atlanta agent Evan Appel. "Unless an athlete has been in the league for five or 10 years, he's probably not going to be sophisticated enough to deal with management in negotiating."
Yet somewhere along the way the cavalry that rescued the athletes turned on them—or a good part of the cavalry did, anyway. "The reason we had to have agents in the first place was to protect the players from owners," says Harvard law professor Paul Weiler, a specialist in legal issues involving sports. "The problem we have now is how to protect the player from the agent. In a sense we've just pushed the problem back one stage."
The transgressions agents commit are most flagrant in team sports (in golf and tennis, they are somewhat more subtle, as we shall see). No longer do we listen in disbelief to tales of a superstar's descent into financial distress on skids greased by a go-go agent. If Kareem Abdul-Jabbar can lose a bundle—a very large bundle, it seems (page 89)—who's safe out there? A surprisingly large number of the most gifted athletes have fallen into webs of soap-operatic complexity, complete with hardship and desperate attempts at redress in the courts. Who among us could not feel some concern for Jack Clark of the Cardinals, who lost about $700,000 in two real estate deals in 1983 and '84 while he was still playing for the San Francisco Giants, and who reportedly had to ask his St. Louis teammates for money to help pay his rent? But at least in this case there was a happy ending. In '85 Clark and ex-Giants teammate Johnnie LeMaster, a partner in the real estate deals, won a lawsuit—King was one of their attorneys—they brought in U.S. District Court in San Francisco against five East Coast businessmen. They were awarded $1.94 million, Clark receiving $1.18 million and LeMaster $759,000.
The tales of financial distress among athlete-clients are, often as not, also tales of financial skulduggery by agents. The enduring symbol of the agent as culprit is Richard Sorkin, a former sportswriter who represented more than 50 NHL and NBA players in the early 1970s and squandered an estimated $1.2 million of his clients' money, much of it on his own gambling and stock market ventures. In '78 Sorkin went to prison after pleading guilty to grand larceny.