Any investigator worth his intuition and suspicion - be it law-enforcement agent, journalist, or freelance gumshoe - understands one technique comes ahead of all others: Follow the money.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in sports, which are awash in dollars in dimensions most of us can't fathom. For example, this week former Seattle shortstop Alex Rodriguez signed a 10-year, $252 million deal with the Texas Rangers. It's the largest contract in sports history.
Imagine, $252 mil to one baseball player who hit a strong but far from exceptional .316 last year (.309 for his career), who smacked a laudable but far from extraordinary 4l homers.
Is this nuts?
Jack Mills, who since the late 1960s has been one of the premier sports agents in the country, sits in his office here (where the walls are adorned with photos of many of the approximately 500 stars he has and does represent), and ponders the question. "I think," he says in his slow Oklahoma drawl, "that it's not that the players are greedy. After all, the money is coming into the pot. So the question is, 'What's a player's fair share?' "
That is a very solid point. After all, never forget that the players bring skills to the top level that 99.99 percent of the populace can't even come close to approaching. Millions of us can sell widgets; none of us can do even a fraction of what the 36 first-round NFL draft choices whom Mills has represented can do. Among his clients past and present: Heisman winners Steve Owens from Oklahoma and George Rogers from South Carolina, Nebraska wide receiver Irving Fryar, Stanford back Tommy Vardell, and Southern California offensive lineman Tony Boselli.
Once, Mills represented four No. 1 draft picks in a single year.
Since 1968, he has represented one of the all-time best golfers ever, Hale Irwin, who has won 20 PGA Tour events, including three US Opens.
The point is, Mills has spent decades of representing star athletes. He's past president of the Sports Lawyers Association and an icon in the business. When Mills speaks, the rest listen respectfully.
What's the biggest change he sees in athletes? Of course it's the money. Says Mills, "The stakes are so much higher. You have players making seven-figure incomes right out of college."
He points to Owens, whom he represented in 1970. Bonuses then ranged from $40,000 to $70,000 for a first rounder. Then Owens also got a $25,000 first-year salary. This is not a typographical error.
Today, Mills says first-rounders get bonuses of $8 million to $13 million and around $1 mil a year salary for four or five years.
Again - remembering to follow the money - Mills estimates there were 50 or fewer agents when he started in 1967. He made $3,900 on his deal for Owens. Today there are about 1,000 agents certified by the NFL Players Association. Agents now are allowed to charge 3 percent. "A player gets a $10 million bonus, there's $300,000 for the agent," he says.
Mills, who has brought his lawyer son, Tom, into the business along with another attorney who played football at Columbia University, Kevin Robinson, is not a live-in-the-past sort who brings up Vince Lombardi in every sentence.
But he does lament that "long-term relationships are gone, and loyalty has diminished greatly." It just doesn't seem like anyone is having as much fun in pro sports as they used to, Mills suggests, maybe because "it's so much more businesslike."
Translation: Follow the money.
Too, he says his feeling is there are fewer and fewer "throwback" players "who just love to play the game." Then he smiles: "But then someone comes along like Tommy Vardell, who never gave up on effort, regardless of the money." Vardell played eight years for the Browns, Lions, and 49ers before retiring prior to this season. Thinking of Touchdown Tommy clearly brightens Mills's day.
And it should. Because while money is the grease for the sports machine, somehow there still should be times when participants of all stripes - players, coaches, journalists, agents, and fans - get together at the end of the day and laugh and tell stories and enjoy the camaraderie. There are. Just not as many as there used to be.
Too much money.
Editor's note: Due to a special section, there will be no Sporting Scene next week. It will resume Dec. 29.
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