Fattening athletes' wallets isn't enough for this sports agent
THE National Football League draft fast approaches (April 29), and that means more stories of multimillion-dollar contracts and more editorials lamenting a sport gone selfishly and expensively awry. But standing to one side of the uproar will be the soft-spoken, mild-mannered Leigh Steinberg, something of a rarity among a fast-talking brotherhood -- the sports agents.
No purple suit here. No vermilion tie or skeins of gold chains. We've come a long way from the days when agents dressed that way and spoke in double talk from a cigar-stuffed mouth.
Mr. Steinberg is as clean cut as they come. And he won't represent an athlete unless the athlete is willing to earmark a percentage of his income for a good cause: charity, scholarships, a civic program, or a community or school chest.
If that sounds like the idealistic fantasy of some class wimp, fathom this: With a record of engineering some of the richest contracts in American athletics -- now totaling about $100 million and counting -- Steinberg has represented many top athletes. These include quarterback Steve Young, whose $40 million contract is the richest in sports history. The charitable contributions of Steinberg's clients (including some matching funds from other contributors) have amounted to about $10 million for everything from children's groups to scholarships to endangered species funds.
``Too many of our athletes are inaccessible to other people,'' says the Berkeley attorney, who has been called a miniature United Way. ``They're spoiled, self-indulgent playboys -- hired Hessians who sadly skim the cream off the top of a city and never give any of it back. That's not in the best interest of the sport, the city, or the player.''
Those who talk with Steinberg find out that his concept of donating a portion of the athlete's income is no fa,cade or gimmick for increasing Steinberg's own take, which is 5 percent of a contract. Mr. Steinberg's interest in athletes extends beyond their years in the spotlight. And he believes deeply that an athlete should develop a sense of giving back something to the community that spawned his success and embraces him. Steinberg wants to harness the fame and adulation given to sports stars, making them catalysts for consciousness-raising, fund raising, and community involvement.
``The concept of the role of the lawyer-agent in the sports field is too narrow,'' says Steinberg. ``It ought to involve more than just adding another dollar to the client's bank book. Athletes serve as role models. They can influence the quality of life off the field as well as on. They have an obligation to repay some of the good fortune they have enjoyed.''
Among the many creative ways athletes have met Steinberg's criterion for his services are these:
In the now-famous ``Kicks for Critters'' program, the San Diego Chargers' Rolf Benirschke, for each field goal he kicks, donates $50 to a San Diego Zoo fund for endangered species. Fans and community enthusiasts join in with matching amounts ranging from $1 for children to $1,000 by participating politicians and business leaders.
New England Patriots quarterback Tony Eason gives a large sum to a home for the mentally handicapped every time his team wins a game. The team matches the amount, and other participants contribute according to advance pledges.
Thirty-two clients have set up scholarships at their own high schools, and Steve Young gave $183,000 to his alma mater, Brigham Young University, for missionary work.
Others give to hospitals, send underprivileged children to home games or summer camps, and contribute time and money to abused-children programs. Steinberg spends about 25 percent of his own time on the boards of community and social programs. Among these is Pros for Kids, an antidrug program started by former Miami Dolphin Delvin Williams.
He also spends a good portion of time giving lectures to community groups and students across the United States about the role of the athlete in today's society.
Among his topics is the story of how he got involved in the business.
As president of the student body at Berkeley, Steinberg served as counselor in charge of the dormitory that housed the school's football team. In 1971 he met and befriended a freshman quarterback named Steve Bartkowski. Steinberg went on to law school, and Bartkowski established himself as the premier forward passer in college football. When, as the first player selected in the 1975 professional football draft, Bartkowski got bogged down in negotiations, he asked his old friend to be his attorney. Steinberg acquiesced and got his client the largest rookie contract in history ($650,000 over four years). The experience opened Steinberg's eyes to the power of the athlete.
``I remember arriving in Atlanta the night before negotiations began. Fans and reporters came out in droves to the airport. One television station interrupted the ``Tonight Show'' with a special bulletin announcing that Bartkowski and his agent had just arrived in town.''
That was 11 years ago. Now Steinberg represents about 90 athletes, including field-goal kicker John Lee (UCLA) and James Kirkpatrick, an all-American tackle at USC. Both signed contracts recently. En route to his success, he's earned respect from fans, players, managers, and the media alike. One journalist spent two weeks trying to turn up something negative about Steinberg, only to come away empty-handed. Another finally extracted this quote from one sports writer: ``Steinberg is out to make a buck like anyone else, but he puts a nice package around it.''
But for the most part, Steinberg gets high praise. Says Bartkowski: ``I've known Leigh for 13 years now, and if there's anything phony about him, I've yet to discover it.
Says Houston Oilers general manager Ladd Herzeg: ``I don't believe there's a phony bone in his body. He's a man of character. I'm not sure I've met many people who are as sincere as he is.''
Sincerity doesn't quash his business savvy, either. Several team owners rank him among the top two or three agents of the hundreds they deal with.
Steinberg says his negotiating skill is a result of his civil attitude at the negotiating table, ``backed by exhaustive research as to the needs and pocketbook of those who want my clients.'' He defends high salaries, based on his knowledge of what team owners make and the short duration of the average sports career.
Steinberg's high repute is also attributed to his genuine interest in athletes. He encourages players to call him for legal advice outside of sports. He once helped New York Jets defensive lineman Mark Gastineau find a criminal lawyer after Gastineau had been arrested for assault at a New York disco. And he helped St. Louis Cardinal quarterback Neil Lomax get a broadcasting job with radio station KMOX in St. Louis.