Leigh Steinberg: ...that focusing on the present will lead to a successful future
Jan: Welcome to Nobody Told Me! I'm Jan Black.
Laura: And I'm Laura Owens.
Jan: Joining us on this episode is Leigh Steinberg, who is known as one of the greatest sports agents in history and the real-life inspiration for the film, Jerry Maguire. Leigh has represented the number one pick in the NFL Draft, a record setting eight times and has negotiated well over $3 billion in contract deals for his clients, including Patrick Mahomes, Steve Young, Troy Aikman, and Oscar de la Hoya.
Laura: While Leigh's life has been filled with some unbelievable highs, he's also had some high-profile struggles which he writes about in his book, The Agent: My 40-Year Career Making Deals and Changing the Game. Leigh, thank you so much for joining us. We really have been looking so forward to talking with you today.
Leigh: It's my pleasure.
Laura: How did you become a sports agent?
Leigh: I was going to the University of California, Berkeley at a very tumultuous time in our history. I was student body president when Ronald Reagan was governor. We would go out and protest, he would crack down. Anyway, I learned everything I ever needed to know about negotiating from dealing with Governor, then President, Reagan. I was a grad counselor in an undergraduate dorm, working my way through law school, and they moved the freshman football team into the dorm. One of those students ended up being the quarterback, Steve Bartkowski.
I graduated from law school in '73, took a year and a half off to travel around the world. It got to be early 1975, and Steve Bartkowski had been the very first player selected in the first round of the National Football League draft. It was big, blue-eyed blonde from my alma mater, and he asked me to represent him. There I was brimming, again, with legal experience and I'm negotiating a contract which turned out, because there was competition between two leagues, to be the largest rookie contract in history.
I'd been in Berkeley and grown up in Los Angeles, we're a little bit mellow when it comes to professional sports.We arrived at the Atlanta airport the night before he was due to sign. When we get there, there are Klieg lights flashing in the sky, like for a movie premiere, a huge crowd was pressed up against the police line. The first thing we heard was, "We interrupt the Johnny Carson Show to bring you a special news bulletin. Steve Bartkowski and his attorney, Leigh Steinberg, have just arrived at the Atlanta airport." I looked at him probably the way that Dorothy looked at Toto when they got to Munchkin Land and said, "I know we're not in California anymore." That's when I saw the tremendous idol worship and veneration.
Jan: You really sort of created the role of the modern sports agent. I mean, you defined it.
Leigh: The truth of the matter was, there was no right of representation when I started in 1975. A team could simply hang up the phone, bam, and say they don't deal with agents, so there was really no career to aspire to. I was choosing between being a prosecutor for the Alameda County DA, I had offers in corporate litigation, I had offers in politics, and offers in television news. Thank you, Steve Bartkowski, for saving me from that life.
Laura: You said that your dad instilled two core values in you that you've carried along with you in all aspects of your life. What were those?
Leigh: My father, who was a high school principal, had spent his life in human relationships, brought my brothers and I up on two strong values. One was treasure relationships, especially family. Am I being a good father, a good son, a good brother? The second was, try to make a positive impact in the world and help people who can't help themselves. I was never hardwired to go make a trillion dollars, but I was very hardwired to find a way to try and heal some of the pain of others.
I saw in that first experience with Bartkowski that athletes sit atop as cultural figures and role models. There would be the potential to use that to address a whole bunch of societal issues, whether it was domestic violence, Lennox Lewis, my client, cutting a public service announcement, "Real Men Don't Hit Women." It could be bullying, it could be racism, it could be the environment, sex trafficking; any problem which exists in the world, we could use the athlete’s profile to try and address and bring awareness to a solution.
Jan: It's known now that you do that, that you expect that of your clients. But when you first got started and you asked them to give something back, what was the reaction that you got?
Leigh: What I learned to do was to profile athletes. Probably in that second year, there was a running back who ran the fastest 40-yard dash I've ever seen out of my office. Over his shoulder, he said, "Leigh, I'm my own charity." I had to be careful to profile off the college campus, those athletes that were a little brighter, had a better heart, were ambitious, and really saw themselves as role models. It's a matter of finding those athletes, and they exist.
We're in the process now with the quarterback, Patrick Mahomes, who was MVP of the NFL, setting up a charitable foundation, 15 and the Mahomies, which will aid youth charities, children's charities in Texas and Kansas City. Basically, the only real product of our practice is, have we stimulated the best in young people's lives? Have we helped them become role models, help them for a second career, and have we helped them make a difference?
Laura: When you're looking for a potential client, you want to be looking beyond just their rough athletic skill, you want to be looking for somebody who has the desire to give back and to use their athleticism for good?
Leigh: Absolutely. That's the criteria that I use. It's resulted in, or close to, a billion dollars in various charities across the country. As I said, we can tackle anything from endangered species to at-risk kids. Using that high-profile, athletes have the ability to enter the perceptual screen of young rebellious adolescence. They might not want to listen to any authority figures, they don't want to listen to a teacher or principal, but a big, macho athlete can deliver a message. When we had Oscar de la Hoya and Steve Young cut a public service announcement that said, “Real Men Don't Hit Women.” It could set a standard for young teens.
Jan: What do you think has changed about the expectations of professional athletes these days, compared to when you first got into being a sports agent?
Leigh: Remember that these players are now part of the millennial or younger generation. They grew up on big computer screens, color and sound, and multitasking. Their attention span, being obsessed with all of that, and believing that you have to combine every minute with multiple activities, has a subversive effect on attention span, so you better get it out quick. Gone are the days of having an athlete sit there and listen to you for an hour, so that's changed. The dangers of social media, which didn't exist before, it can be a great brander and can add to the value of a player's profile. But on the other hand, it can be a very destructive force if people aren't careful in what they post.
The biggest change of all is just the economics. When I started, each team in the NFL, as a chair of the national television contract, received $2 million. Today with all the competitive bidding, that figure is $200 million per team per season. We're talking about high round draft picks, talented veteran athletes who, in all sports, should be relatively fixed for life from the revenue they earn in playing.
Laura: I want to go back to talking about your personal story. You must be so tired of people asking you about Jerry Maguire now, 23 years after the movie came out. But I want to know about how you ended up going from that time when you were in the airport and you saw yourself on Johnny Carson to being the super-agent that Jerry Maguire was based off of.
Leigh: I was able to find athletes, in the NFL, 62 first round draft picks, in baseball, a big practice was 60 players, basketball practice, Olympics, US Soccer team, all using the same basic principles, so the practice exploded. Then on the side, I tried to create a profession where every single thing I love to do, I could do. For example, I love to write, so I wrote two New York Times bestselling books and chapters for other ones. I've been writing for Forbes.
I love movies. Cameron Crowe, the director of Jerry Maguire, followed me around for about a year and a half to pick up atmosphere for a film based on a sports agent. Lots of it is based on stories that I told him. We've had fun with that. A modern sports agency also tries to be involved in content creation. We have a number of different shows that we're pitching, some reality, some dramatically scripted. As well as working on a new VR project where you put the headset on, and you become Patrick Mahomes facing the bull rush that's coming towards you. Based on what you do, you get the illusion you're actually in the football game.
Jan: Wow, that sounds exciting. What about the role of a sports agent almost as a paternal figure, or a brotherly figure, or just a family figure with a lot of these guys?
Leigh: You would have three basic components of athletic representation. One would be recruiting because without signing good clients, you would not have a viable agency. The second is contract negotiations and that's for endorsements and for player contracts. The third part of it is what we call client relations or client maintenance. Athletes will have all sorts of problems; they're not on a winning team, they're not starting, they're injured, they're having problems in their domestic life, they don't like a coach. You have to constantly be able to help them and counsel them.
What I do with an athlete upfront, so I can really understand him, everyone thinks a great skill in life is suasion, but it's actually listening. If you can sit with another person, peel back the layers of the onion of the surface responses they give you, and get deeper and deeper so you understand their value system; how they feel about short-term economic gain, long-term economic security, geographical location, being a starter, if you can pull all of that out of them, and understand another person's greatest anxieties and fears, and most profound hopes and dreams, then you can emotionally connect at a different level. It enables me to have a clearer understanding of what's on an athlete's mind. For people who try it, they will find that it enables you to navigate your way through life seamlessly because every activity we do, in one form or another, involves other people.
Laura: When I think about that, yeah, it's exactly like what you just said, that that works for all aspects of life. But it does seem like it's difficult to get a lot of people to open up initially. That's a process that's taking time to build trust. How do you get these guys to trust you so quickly?
Leigh: Fortunately, we have the experience of the draft process. Most representation starts with a college football, or basketball player, or baseball player. The very first thing they have to do is train as the 2019 potential draftees are doing right now. Then they have to face the scouting system. In football, that'll be all-star games, and then the Scouting Combine coming up at the end of this month, and then a Pro Scouting Day. Once you have gone through that process successfully with the athlete relying on your judgment because there's no rules in respect to what an athlete has to do or not do to get drafted. He could choose to opt out. But once you've gone through that, there's a bonding.
It used to be that once the first contract happened, although we now have salary caps in the NFL and the NBA; but once, it was the athlete, his family, and myself against the world trying to achieve a more dramatic contractual result. You were bonded, you had seen each other in tough times, you've seen each other when there was risk and so you had a sense of the fact that there was trust there. If you can always put yourself in another person's heart and mind, and see the world the way they see it, not your perspective, but internally the way they see it, then you're able to, I don't care if it's recruiting, negotiating, client maintenance, every aspect of life is enhanced.
Jan: You have had some challenges in life, let's talk a little bit about those. What have been some of the tough things that you've had to go through that you couldn't have even imagined? Once you were at the top of the heap here, you had a big fall. How did you come back?
Leigh: First of all, it was nothing about work that ever really threw me back. We had a massive practice, I just thought it was fun. I went through a period where I had a series of losses where my father died of cancer, where my kids were diagnosed with an eye disease, where we lost a house to mold. I felt helpless, like Gulliver tethered down on a beach by the Lilliputians. I've always been okay if I could try to solve a problem, even if it didn't work.
I turned to alcohol, I gave my practice away, I closed down my office, and I went into sober living. But it was a matter of proportionality. In other words, I'm not a starving peasant in Darfur. I don't have a last name Steinberg in Nazi Germany. I don't have cancer or physical impairments. What excuse did I have not to get back to those core values we spoke of a second or two ago. Children don't petition to be brought into the world, we bring them in the world so you owe them stability and unconditional love.
I worked a 12-step program and after I'd done it for a couple of years, we restarted a practice; it's starting in football, then we'll go to baseball and basketball. And also a series of special programs. I never lost the sense that I was supposed to be a steward of sports. I took an issue like concussion and I've held 14 conferences on it. The reality is that at this current time, we have the hottest player in pro-football, series of other very good players.
I'm about ready to start on another book which would be parenting for youth athletes. No one gives you a driver's license to tell your child who's participating in soccer whether they're supposed to win at all costs, like Vince Lombardi, or whether participation is the key. If they're not playing a good position, if they don't like the coach, if they're not getting playing time, if they're injured, do you tell them to assert themselves with the coach and fight for themselves? Or are they supposed to be patient and learn to tolerate disappointment? That's a book I'm getting ready to buy.
Jan: That sounds wonderful. I'm wondering what advice you would have for parents who are listening to this who have a kid who is showing some potential star quality in sports, what's the best advice you could give parents?
Leigh: The first thing is this, my thought for this book was occasioned because my daughter, Katie, when she was about 10, was out playing soccer in the playoffs with her team, and they lost and she was crying. Like any empathetic father, I ran out to the field and said, "There'll be other seasons." She looks at me and says, "Dad, I'm not crying because our team lost, I'm crying because I don't get to see my friends on it as much anymore." You begin to see the differential between what a parent’s expectations are and how their son or daughter are actually experiencing it. The first key to know is that it's about the child, it's not about a father's competitiveness, it's not about whether or not you're embarrassed by how your children, it's about the child and it's about participation. A whole series of understandings come from that.
Laura: In this day and age, given all that we are now learning about with concussions in regards to football players, would you encourage your son to play football?
Leigh: I had a crisis of conscience. Back in 1994, I did the first concussion conference. We brought all the neurologists out and had them talk about the state of it. We knew then that three or more concussions occasioned an exponentially higher risk of Alzheimer's, premature senility, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, and depression. I called it a 'ticking time bomb' and an undiagnosed health epidemic. As recently as this month, we held another concussion conference in Atlanta at the Super Bowl. Knowing everything I knew, not just about concussion, but every other way in which joints breakdown in the body, I didn't encourage my two teenage sons to play, but they played anyway.
There's a real problem in a contact sport in that every time an offensive lineman and a defensive lineman hit at the line of scrimmage, it produces a low-level, sub-concussive event. A lineman could walk out of football with 10,000 sub-concussive events, none of which were diagnosed, and none of which he's aware of. But the aggregate almost certainly does the same thing as six or seven knockout blows does.
If 50% of the moms understood this in the country and told their teenage boys, "You can play any sport, but not tackle football," it would not kill football, but it certainly would change the socio-economics of it, so it would just become a gladiator sport. That's why I've been pushing hard on new helmetry, faster diagnosis on the sidelines, mandatory sit-out periods, nutraceuticals and pharmaceuticals that can either prophylactically protect the brain or heal it, and addressing this issue seriously.
Girls who play youth soccer, AYSO, have a problem with concussions because they had the ball at times. Those young girls that had the ball, they've actually had studies to show lower test scores.
Jan: Leigh, our show is called Nobody Told Me! I'd like to ask you a few of your nobody told me lessons about different aspects in life. What is it that nobody told you about alcoholism, for example?
Leigh: Nothing. I grew up in a family where there was no alcohol. No one ever told me how to drink like a gentleman. I didn't have any cautionary note for that. I was raised by very idealistic parents, so nobody told me that people would do amazingly destructive and harmful things just for money because it wasn't the way I was raised. It still shocks me to this moment that someone in my close inner-circle, who talks about sharing the same values and everything, can have negative schemes or plans. Nobody told me that someone who totally tells you something to your face could be lying or insincere. Because I had a father who believed everybody, I'm still a little bit naive that way in my own personal life. I think being optimistic, believing that everything will have a happy ending, has served me well, but it's good to have tough people around me that can screen.
Jan: What is it that nobody told you about sobriety?
Leigh: Again, I had no experience with alcohol. I wasn't a problem drinker most of my life, it came on later after that cascade of different things. Nobody told me you could have as much, or more, fun sober as you could with alcohol.
Laura: What did nobody tell you about the importance of family?
Leigh: They told me everything about that. I always understood that at the end of days, all the newspaper clippings, the notoriety, the adulation, the money will have faded away. What you're left with at the end of it is positive relationships with your family and friends, were you a good friend, and whatever energy you brought trying to change the world for the better and helping people who can't help themselves. I don't have the ability to walk by pain or need, and not respond.
My dad used to look at me when I was a kid and he'd say, “When you're looking for someone to fix a problem as minor as picking something off the floor, as major as stopping racism, you're looking for someone that will fix it. It's always the amorphous, they or them, older people, political figures." He'd look at me and say, “The 'they' is you, son. You are the 'they.'” It inculcates a real sense of responsibility.
In the wake of Oklahoma City, when skinheads and racists were becoming offending, I didn't wait around. I went out and funded a program that trained 7,000 volunteers in the fight against hate. The point is that, and that's how I judge myself, have I responded to people who don't have the independent ability to help themselves in a positive way?
Jan: What message do you have for somebody who's listening to this? Since you've been down on your luck before, what message do you have for them about coming back?
Leigh: The quality that will save you is resilience. It's the ability to look past the defecation in the barn and believe there's a pony there. It's a sense that we're alive for these fleeting moments and every moment on the face of the earth is as important as every other one. Don't live in the past, the way things were. Don't live in the future, the way you imagine they're going to be. Life is happening right now, and this moment is every bit as critical as any other moment. If you will put your focus and all your energy into putting down your cell phone, stopping with all the different stimulus, and focusing on that moment, whether it's trying to get sober, trying to negotiate a million-dollar contract, trying to have a romantic relationship. If you can be present in that moment, you'll derive the most out of life.
Normally, when a person has come out of fighting with addiction, they have tremendous, incredible wreckage. The first part of it is trying to deal with what seems to be an insurmountable amount of negative consequences. It might feel like Sophocles or pushing the ball up that mountain and every time it goes one step up, it seems to come two back. It's simply having faith that better days are ahead and if you just stay optimistic and you work hard that things always will turn out well.
Laura: I'm curious to know if you consider yourself to be a happier and more fulfilled and faithful person now than you did before you had your struggles with alcoholism?
Leigh: I think it's more fun. I ran for 35 years from one signing to the next. I had to dominate every sport; I had to have the heavyweight champion, the best basketball player, the greatest football players. I had to write the best books, I had to write the best columns. I had to just keep moving, moving, moving. This has given me the opportunities to slow down slightly, compared to myself, probably not to other people, and to actually sit back and enjoy it. In other words, the fact that our client, Patrick Mahomes, in his first starting year became MVP, Most Valuable Player, out of all couple thousand players in the NFL, is fun. The fact that he's setting up a charitable foundation, he can do a lot of good. Because the practice doesn't have 90 football players, 60 baseball players, and 20 basketball players anymore, there's more time to focus, have an appreciation, and more time to be a good father.
Jan: Leigh, how can people connect with you on social media and on the internet? I know you also are running sports agent academies, you're just involved in so many different things.
Leigh: I tweet @leighsteinberg, I Instagram @leighsteinberg, I'm obviously on Facebook and LinkedIn. The way to reach me is Leigh@SteinbergSports.com or SteinbergSports.com to see what we're up to.
Jan: All right. Thank you so much, Leigh. this has just been an absolute joy and enlightening.
Laura: We feel like we've learned a lot from you.
Jan: Yeah, we really have.
Laura: About perspective, appreciation, and comebacks, so many different things.
Jan: Thank you so much for your time.
Leigh: Thank you. Take it easy. So long.
Jan: Our thanks to Leigh Steinberg. Again, his last book is called, The Agent: My 40-Year Career Making Deals and Changing the Game. His website is SteinbergSports.com. I'm Jan Black.
Laura: And I'm Laura Owens.
Jan: You're listening to Nobody Told Me! Thank you so much for joining us.