NFL Agents Getting a Bum Rap: An Interview With Priority Sports' Kenny Zuckerman

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NFL Agents Getting a Bum Rap: An Interview With Priority Sports' Kenny Zuckerman

When Josh Luchs went public with his personal experiences and foibles as a one-time NFL agent, football fans assumed that his story was typical in the business.

Gary Wichard, Ian Greengross and (of course) Drew Rosenhaus are other agents who have come under fire recently for alleged inappropriate and unethical dealings with college athletes.

With all this negative publicity, it is easy to assume that the business has systemic and widespread problems that no one is doing anything about.

That is the story Sports Illustrated wrote and the world believes is a comprehensive look at the scum who represents professional athletes.

Hasn't the sports world played this game before?

When Jose Canseco came out with a bushel basket full of steroid allegations, the general public began to assume that everyone was juicing. All of a sudden, Canseco—as trustworthy as a Chicago politician—magically became the moral compass of baseball.

Really?

Back then as now, a truism stands out. When someone is crooked—whether representing steroids, unethical sports, whatever—their paradigm is going to be slanted toward that same crooked behavior.

Birds of a feather still flock together.

In Canseco's case, they stuck needles filled with anabolic steroids in each other.

In the same way, crooked agents can easily spot the behavior of other crooked agents. Players who take money from one agent are probably taking money from two or three. If players are taking money, they probably know which of their friends are getting money, too.

Luchs was a slimeball of an agent and hung out with slimeball agents. He had slimeball clients who helped him get other slimeball clients.

That doesn't mean every agent and every athlete behaves in the same deplorable way.

 

"People Should Understand That There Are Good People Here"

The president of Athlete Representation for Priority Sports, Kenny Zuckerman, sat down with Bleacher Report to discuss some of the issues with the sports representation world.

Priority Sports is a top five, privately owned company and represents some of the biggest names in the NFL—NFLPA President Kevin Mawae, two-time Super Bowl MVP Kurt Warner, Alan Faneca, Haloti Ngata, Olin Kreutz, Arian Foster; Rashard Mendenhall—the list goes on and on.

Priority Sports also does things the right way.

Zuckerman explains the public sentiment about sports agents in this way: "With so much negative media, everyone has made this out to mean that the industry as a standard is bad. People should understand that there are good people here."

In every walk of life, in every segment of the population, some unscrupulous behavior is going to stick out like a sore thumb.

Yet, just because the local paper has front-page news about a crooked cop doesn't mean every police officer is taking money under the table. A doctor overbilling his patients doesn't mean every doctor lacks common ethics. A slimeball politician...

Never mind.

"In any business that people make a lot of money, it draws a lot of charlatans. And, as the economy gets worse, this behavior seems to get worse."

 

The Job of a Sports Agent

Zuckerman knows that agents can cater to some of their clients' more carnal tendencies. He just doesn't spend a whole lot of time worrying about it. 

He caters to other needs.

Miami Dolphins defensive end Lionel Dotson is one of of his personal clients and is in L.A. undergoing surgery after being placed on injured reserve. In the middle of our phone call, Zuckerman stepped away and took a dinner order from Dotson's mom, making sure he was getting her son's favorite.

A league source, speaking on the condition of anonymity, spoke on the record about the difference between good agents and bad agents. The difference, he said, is that all agents can negotiate a contract. Most times, it is the easiest part of their job.

The hardest part of an agent's job?

Saying no.

Some agents can't do it. If the expected high draft pick wants a Maserati now, how do you say no when another super agent will say yes. You'll lose the client, the exposure and the commission.

The source says, "The 'good agent' is someone that cares about the success of the player on and off the field. A lot of players have agents who are enablers, which can only hurt the player. Some agents are afraid of standing up to their client."

But Zuckerman knows that the on-the-field stuff is what matters most: "Kurt Warner isn't on 'Dancing With The Stars' because he's a good dancer, but because he's a Super Bowl MVP."

"If you're not picked and you're not in the NFL, you're not going to be in anyone's rap video."

In his estimation, too many young players are swayed by talk of off-the-field glitz and glamor. He's more than willing to help his clients after their football career is over, but it is that football career that opens up the opportunities to Hollywood, coaching or business.

 

Oversight Needed, But By Whom?

Zuckerman understands the fact that the business has some dirt gathering in the corners that needs to be cleaned up and not just swept under another rug. He says it is in the best interest of agents that the business of sports agency is cleaned up.

As a top company, Priority Sports would be that much more successful if the playing field were leveled with rules governing the conduct of sports agents and a better enforcement of those rules.

But who is going to do that enforcing?

Already, individual states have laws governing the conduct of sports agents—especially as it pertains to contact with amateur athletes.

Don't think that the states have pure intentions, either. A state like Texas, California or Florida indirectly profits off the success of the colleges within their borders.

NCAA schools (and coaches) profit directly off the players on their campus. So, while they want players to stay out of the NFL, it isn't exactly with pure motives (see the Cam Newton allegations).

Zuckerman believes that the sports agency world eventually needs to govern itself. The NFLPA, in his estimation, does a great job looking out for NFL players, but college players aren't in the NFL yet, and might never be.

The NFL and NFLPA, naturally, don't care if so-and-so is a high draft pick, because if he isn't, someone else will be.

First, he wonders if a solution might be found with the Securities and Exchange Commission (known by everyone but Southern football fans as the SEC). The SEC manages financial transactions of all kinds and has rules and regulations about all types of big business.

Sports marketing, if you haven't noticed, has become a multimillion-dollar operation.

What's more, the SEC would have power to investigate, subpoena and punish in ways that the NFL, NFLPA and the NCAA simply can't.

 

In the Meantime, Things Aren't As Bad As They Seem

When Sports Illustrated came out with the Josh Luchs story, it made the sports marketing world (especially as it pertains to the NFL and the NFL draft) seem like the wild wild west.

Reality isn't as exciting.

First, the climate has changed substantially since Luchs started paying amateur players because he couldn't do his job any other way.

When Luchs began, a person didn't even need a college degree to become an agent. Knowing a player or having an "in" was enough to get an agent certified and doing business. Now, an agent needs a post-graduate degree—at least a master's—before even thinking about certification.

Now, since that rule took effect, many older agents were grandfathered in without advanced degrees; plus, it isn't as if an MBA or a JD is proof someone is doing things the right way. But it at least weeds out guys like Luchs who learned business in a back room rather than a classroom.

The NFLPA has, right now, the most stringent requirements in the sporting world for agents dealing with their players.

A union source agrees with Zuckerman that the problem with the NFLPA policing agents is often because of a lack of resources and manpower, rather than indifference to the problem.

That source also points out that rumors are constantly flying in the sports world. Lesser agents and firms often lose out to bigger and better agents and want to believe it was because of unethical behavior and not just their own shortcomings.

In this country, in that business, you can't prosecute on rumor alone.

"We've been very proactive in disciplining agents when we have all the information. We've never been hesitant with discipline. [But] it's very difficult to get the information that will hold up in front of the arbitrator."

Even when the info is there, it isn't a quick process. It is due process.The agent has the right to appeal and suspensions can't be enforced during the appeals process.

Sometimes an agent is handed to you on a silver platter. If proof is offered in the form of receipts, call logs, transcripts, taped conversations, bank reports, etc., it is easy to suspend an agent.

Sometimes an agent hands himself over. It was a no-brainer to punish Luchs after the SI story. It wasn't revenge for making someone look bad, as some have postulated. It was an agent telling the public he violated the rules, an admission of guilt.

The union source also pointed to a program run by the NFLPA called "Pipeline to the Pros." The initiative sends union reps to college campuses (when invited) to discuss ways a player can protect himself—not only from agents, but also from every other hand looking to slime its way into the wallets of eventual superstars.

Most importantly, "Pipeline to the Pros" tries to convince college athletes to stay and get their degrees. While college coaches have a pretty clear bias when they tell their underclassmen to stick around, the NFLPA is an unbiased observer making the case that the average NFL player plays fewer than three years, meaning that a degree is more important than most top college football players realize.

 

Sometimes the Good Guys Don't Finish Last

Priority Sports didn't get to be where they are with handouts, free cars and bending the rules every chance they got.  

Priority Sports is at the top of the agent food chain because quality clients and quality agents are a great match. Priority is a quality agency on a mission to find and represent quality clients.

Zuckerman points to his partner Rick Smith and their agency's work in places like Tonga, Samoa and Hawaii.

"We fell in 'like' with the quality of person, the family values, the work ethic, the integrity..."

When you do right by people in a close-knit community, the family remembers and does right by you.

Tyson Alualu was a top pick this year as a defensive lineman out of Cal. He was drafted higher than projected, in part because of the training he did preparing for workouts at Priority's training facilities—among the best in the business.

While Tyson was playing for Saint Louis High School in Honolulu, Hawaii, Priority Sports was making Saint Louis alumnus Olin Kreutz one of the highest-paid linemen in football.

In the same way, Priority doesn't need to give handouts to the families in Samoa (who could probably use them more than some of the rich American kids who are taking them) or build an elaborate training center in Tonga. Because Priority operates with integrity, clients come running every year.

Priority client Issac Sopoaga is a defensive lineman for the San Francisco 49ers, and goes back to Samoa every year to talk about the academic and athletic opportunities on the mainland. No one tells him to name-drop or suggest an agency, but Samoan kids who look up to Sopoaga will know where to turn once they need representation.

Even in the world of high-priced sports agents, effort and integrity can be rewarded just as much as a cutthroat lack of ethics.

 

 

Michael Schottey is the managing editor of the College Writing Internship at Bleacher Report and an NFL Featured Columnist. Michael has covered the NFL professionally in a number of media markets in print, radio and online media. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America.

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