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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.