Former sports superagent Leigh Steinberg is back in the game after a devastating professional and personal collapse. The inspiration for the movie “Jerry Maguire” talks to Al Jazeera’s Michael Eaves about how alcohol had taken over his life, about his comeback — and about head injuries and football. Plus, read Steinberg’s advice for Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman following his postgame rant.
Michael Eaves: Leigh, when you started off, the term "superagent" didn't exist, and player representation as it is today didn't exist. How did you start that and why?
Leigh Steinberg: The reality is, there was no right of representation when I began. Matter of fact, I remember calling up Mike Brown of the Bengals to represent a player one day, and he said, "We don't deal with agents." Click. That was that negotiation. Mostly, players had their parents, or they did it themselves. The role of an agent is to serve as a buffer in many senses. Years ago I asked Steve Bartkowski, in the very first negotiation, whether he wanted to hear every single fact that went on between me and the general managers. And he said, "Sure. You know, it's my life. I want to hear." I said, "Well, Steve, they're going to say some not-so-complimentary things about you." "No, no, no. I'll be fine." So we get into the negotiation, and the (general manager) says, "You know, he's not so fast. His back is a little bad. This wasn't a strong draft in quarterbacks, but he was sort of the best there was." So I conveyed that to Steve, to which he said, "Get me traded!"
Part of my job is to get into the heart and mind of a young athlete, to ask him to rate his values, whether it's short-term economic gain or family or the ability to start. And men don't share so easily, so it's a question of peeling back the layers of the onion so I can deeply understand their greatest hopes and dreams and greatest fears and anxieties — focus them toward a second career, focus on the injury issue, have players mentor them into being a productive pro player, which is different than college.
At one point, you were considered one of the most influential and powerful people in sports — not just the NFL but, as you mentioned, all of sports. Was that a power that you sought, and did that power ever consume you?
There was a year where I was rated ahead of Pete Rozelle, who was the NFL commissioner. And again, going back to my dad's admonitions, which were two — treasure relationships, especially family, and make a significant difference in the time you live in by helping people who couldn't help themselves. So we never advertised power. You can either use influence to help people or you can talk about it. And dealing with powerful men, I didn't talk about it. I always saw it as power to do good. I never confused myself with the public perception or the public me. And I knew that newspaper clippings and awards and all the rest of it were just ephemeral, so that you can put your name on a building, thinking that you win immortality, and a larger donor comes along, and that building's gone. They're like sand castles on the beach. So, no — to me, friendship and making a difference were really the keys.
A lot of fans have a hard time seeing now that, especially, players come from other leagues in baseball, but it has — it's happened in the NBA. That's what led to the rookie salary cap — guys getting all this money before they have ever played a second at the professional level. We just saw it recently with the Yankees signing Masahiro Tanaka from Japan. Does too much money, Leigh, corrupt the game?
Yasiel Puig was bought by the Dodgers under similar circumstances. He lit the field up this year. Players are competitive. They want to play, notwithstanding all the economics that people talk about, so it doesn't impact the player if they've got his character right. In terms of the game, baseball is rolling in profits. Baseball has quintupled its gross receipts since 1994. They have the money. The concept of paying bonuses to athletes who have competitive leagues has been there since the start of sports; every time that happens, the dollars cascade up. What you saw there was the effect when you have absolute freedom in teams bidding against each other. In any economic situation, if you have multiple buyers, the economics are going to soar. So I would say this is more a one-off than it is a big trend, and the evil empire will be evil once more.
I wasn’t being a great father — more absentee —
and I wasn’t making a difference.
Well, one interesting thing I read in your book is your history with concussions and research into the long-term effects of them. Tell us where we were with concussions in the NFL and tell us where we need to be and how soon we need to get there.
In the '80s, I had a crisis of conscience and believed that I couldn't continue stacking dollars into the bankbooks of players, thinking I was doing my fiduciary responsibility, when they might end up with dementia. So there was complete denial in the NFL for years and years and years. No doctor could tell us how many were too many or what the magic number was that should trigger retirement. I called it a ticking time bomb and an undiagnosed health epidemic. Now, the league, after that, finally started to have concussion awareness under the new commissioner, Roger Goodell. They passed a baseline testing mandate that the players all had to be tested. They passed a whistle-blower edict, asking players to report on other players who, on the field, seemed to be having problems with a concussion. They had stronger return-to-play concepts. All of this was new for a league that had not recognized it.
Then along came the lawsuit, which sort of stopped everything because it was a question of admission. And I now believe this — that, when an offensive lineman hits a defensive lineman at the inception of every football play, it produces a low-level concussive event. An offensive lineman can walk out of football with 10,000 subconcussive hits, none of which have been diagnosed, none of which he's aware of, but the aggregate of which is much more impactful, in terms of brain damage, than having three knockout blows. And so we're going to see a mass of impacted athletes as time goes on — bigger, stronger athletes. So the problem is outrunning the changes that football had made. And that's why I call it an existential threat. If 50 percent of mothers across the country really realize what those impacts do and tell their kids, "You can play any sport except tackle football," it won't kill football, Michael — it just changes the socioeconomics so the people who play football will be like the people who box. The irony is, at the absolute apex of power, with this country NFL crazy, by 2 to 1, top-rated shows — we have this lurking threat. We need dramatically to move on helmets. The current helmet just protects against skull fracture.
What happened to the Leigh Steinberg empire? How did it go from such a peak to pretty much just crumbling altogether?
In the year 2000, a huge merger mania hit the sports industry. The concept was to buy up and bundle practices in football, baseball, basketball, boxing, and then use them to trigger a marketing arm that could market teams, leagues, any interesting individual or corporations, and then to build a studio — not in the brick-and-mortar sense, but in the virtual sense — that does sports-themed motion pictures, which are all very popular and all make money; television shows, reality shows, event shows, dramatically scripted shows, help with video games, work on projects that span the different platforms of content supplied to bring fans closer. We discovered back in the '90s that it was the spawn of special projects that really had the great multiples in sports representation, more than the actual representation. So I dreamed up a company called Athlete Direct, and we put Michael Jordan, Ken Griffey Jr., football quarterbacks up on the Internet. A fan could read their weekly diary, read their description of their foundation, buy things with e-commerce, so we probably put a couple hundred thousand dollars into that project and sold our share for over $20 million a couple years later, and that sort of triggered it. So that consolidation, that merger mania was happening. The challenge was, could you build this larger empire? So we got bought by a firm — indescribable amount of money — and they soon changed their minds. So I sat there and felt trapped. And it caused younger agents to be really dissatisfied — not really with me, but with the whole cost-cutting, and they wanted to leave.
That was the first step. And then a series of personal reverses happened in my life. I lost my father to a long, lingering death from cancer. My two boys were diagnosed with an incurable eye disease. We lost a house to flooding and had to knock it to the ground. And then my wife and I broke up, and my marriage broke up. And it felt like Job-ian type plagues, one after another after another. Was it going to be locusts next, or was it going to be firstborn? And I felt like Gulliver, tethered down on a beach, with Lilliputians sticking forks in me and the powerlessness. So I chose a self-destructive way to block that out, and that was alcohol. So in the years 2007, '08 and '09, I spiraled down. And by March of 2010, I realized that alcohol had taken over my life. I wasn't being a great father — more absentee — and I wasn't making a difference. So I realized sobriety had to come first and finally surrendered to the concept I was an alcoholic, and went ahead and moved into sober living and worked a 12-step program with a unique fellowship, and I work on that every day, and here we are, four years later.
One of the biggest stories coming into this year's Super Bowl was the postgame interview that Richard Sherman gave to Fox Sports. If he were your client, the moment after you saw that, what would your advice have been?
First of all, he wouldn't be my client, because we work with role models. He twerked his way into the national consciousness. He took a page out of Miley Cyrus' book and did something so dramatic that all the country's talking about it. First of all, since I think he preplanned that and was ready to do it to grab his moment of fame, I would say, "You succeeded. You did a great job," to take an obscure defensive back from the Seattle Seahawks and make him the top topic of the conversation in the country.
Now, Super Bowl Week, he has a chance to take that any direction he wants. He can soften it. He can continue being outrageous. The Super Bowl is the premier marketing event we have in this country. It's the ability to escape the narrow genre of hard-core sports fans and become a household name. So players who play dramatically in the game and give a good week of interviews can find that cascade. I represented Troy Aikman. I watched him walk onto the field as "good quarterback Troy Aikman," and he walked off of the field as "Troy Aikman, superstar," in '93. And he's still doing endorsements today. Steve Young, '94 — "The monkey's off my back!" — wins the Super Bowl, still doing endorsements today. Richard Sherman has the ability, if he can play well enough, that either can be his — he could become a pet rock, where this is over quickly, but if he interviews well this week and leaves a distinctive impression, America will allow a boisterous person to retract. It's harder to get the attention in the first place, and he's got it.
Rapid fire — favorite client?
Of all time?
Favorite team executive that you had to negotiate with?
Bob Kraft of the Patriots.
The player you wish you represented, but never had the chance to?
This interview has been condensed and edited.
This interview aired Sunday, February 2, at 7p ET/4p PT. Check back here for repeat dates.