The furor raised by the cover story in Sports Illustrated a firsthand account of a football agent paying college players -- makes me wonder if this is news to anyone. Let's look at some of the facts about representing NFL players.
How to become an NFL agent
There are few barriers to entry to becoming a certified football agent. The application fee to the NFL Players Association is $1,650, followed by an annual fee of $1,200 for nine or fewer clients or $1,700 for ten or more clients. Also, agents are now required to maintain mandatory liability insurance costing $1750 upwards depending on the agent revenues the prior year.
Prospective agents must pass an exam to become certified, with basic questions on negotiating and NFL economics. On average, 70% of people taking the test pass, although this year just over 60%, about 160 of the 255 that took the exam, passed.
The stark number
There are 825 agents certified with the NFL Players Association. Almost half of these agents have no clients. And 20% of these agents represent 70% of all NFL players. With groups like CAA and Rosenhaus Sports representing over 100 players each, it is easy to see how the numbers are skewed.
How does an inexperienced agent or someone working for that agent get the attention of a top college football player? Cash is one sure way to get a player's attention.
Players hold all the cards
With so many agents and so few players at the top, college players can hold their hands out to be filled with cash. Many do.
All agents that I talk with have the same view of the present state of the agent industry: it is slimy and only getting worse. I ask why they stay in it and I usually hear about it being worth it to have some quality clients, the rush of it, etc.
As a team negotiator, I always could infer when an agent was owed a lot of money. I would rarely ask them directly, but saw signs when agents wanted to do a quick and early contract, when they complained about the "herd" -- friends, family members, girlfriends, wives, others -- in the ear of the client, and when they expressed exasperation about how much time and money were invested in the client.
Having been an agent until joining the Packers -- when Ricky Williams left me for new agent Master P and soured me on the industry and soured me on the industry for good -- I understood the appeal. The thrill of the chase and the rush from recruiting a top player or negotiating a big deal can be addictive. The lows, however, are quite low and sometimes part of a vicious cycle of trying to curry favor with players in any way possible.
Role of union leadership
Former NFLPA Executive Director Gene Upshaw had little to do with agents, save his own agent Tom Condon (CAA), and his staff was forever pointing out that it was the collective agent, the union, that was responsible for the riches of NFL players more than the individual agents. New Executive Director DeMaurice Smith has communicated with a select group of agents through conference calls, but little information is shared other than advising them to counsel their players to save their earnings towards a potential lockout.
Although Smith has earlier said that he would discipline agents that run afoul with NCAA schools, he would rather not deal with the problem. His focus, like Upshaw's before him, is on the players: if doing something good for them (like lowering agent fees) hurts the agents, so be it.
Rookie wage scale will not stop problem
Finally, some have suggested that a rookie wage scale, likely in a new collective bargaining agreement, will go a long way to stopping the problem, with the lesser payout to rookies changing the environment. Well, uh, no.
Neither the lowering of maximum fees charged by agents from 5% to 4% to 3% nor the raising of annual dues paid to the union has slowed the rush of people approaching players on college campuses. The lure of the industry is seductive to young men fueled by adrenaline and a love of the game.
So you still want to be an agent?
To those who ask about the best way to become an agent, I say: "Be college roommates with a first-round draft pick."
I advise them to pursue something else first -- law, business, etc. -- before transitioning into the agent business. And perhaps the NFLPA elevates barriers to entry such as a requirement for a graduate degree and some experience in business, law or sports management.
Sports Illustrated shined the light on a dark business.