Since representing his first client (former college friend and Atlanta Falcons No. 1 overall pick Steve Bartkowski) in 1975, Steinberg has negotiated over $2 billion in contracts, including a number of then-record deals. He's represented over 60 first-round picks, including eight players who were selected No. 1 overall.
When director Cameron Crowe wanted to get a feel for how NFL agents go about their business before filming Jerry Maguire, it was Steinberg whom Crowe shadowed.
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Mr. Steinberg to discuss the winds of change that have swept through the league over the past 40 years, the biggest threat facing the NFL today and what he loves most about the sport he's been involved with for over four decades.
And given the recent news across the NFL, it seemed fitting for our chat to begin with the New England Patriots.
Bleacher Report: It's the hot topic of the time, so—what's your take on Deflategate?
Leigh Steinberg: I think the reason we have such widespread fan support and appreciation for both collegiate and professional sports is the assumption that the games are played on an even playing field—that the equipment's the same, the rules are the same—that coaching strategy and the skill of the athletes and their efforts are what make the difference.
Anything that raises questions about that can turn the sport into wrestling. It turns it into an exhibition. That's the biggest danger that professional sports faces.
We've seen athletic behavior off the field that's not desirable, but people responded to their anger at the NFL over the Ray Rice situation by going to games in even larger numbers and record TV ratings. But what can damage it is the sense that it's rigged, or fixed, or not fair.
No one is going to argue that the deflation of footballs in the AFC Championship Game made a major difference. It was a 45-7 blowout. But I think the commissioner is in a situation here where he needs to act and show this won't be tolerated.
Did (Tom Brady) commit capital murder? No, and the irony here is that if you try to think of a player who has led a more pristine life off the field or been a better role model, it's hard to think of a better one than Tom Brady.
But this issue has hit the third rail of public opinion. And once it's in beauty shops and barber shops...people are talking about this everywhere, and it struck fans as wrong, so it's about the integrity of the game.
B/R: You've negotiated over $2 billion in player contracts over the years, but the new CBA drastically changed that landscape. How has the new Collective Bargaining Agreement (signed in 2011) affected an agent's role in negotiating contracts for your clients as opposed to, say, Bartkowski's rookie deal?
Steinberg: It's taken a good deal of the fun, excitement and creativity out of the working negotiation process. Until 2011, even though they had a salary cap, which was supposed to be a tough one (in 1993), we were able to find concepts like voidable years, void buybacks, escalator clauses and split options that really mitigated the effect of the cap and still allowed rookies to come out of it with handsome bonuses and the ability to negotiate a second contract sometime soon.
With the 2011 CBA, they did their best to fundamentally eliminate all that, to take the bonus money that was paid to draftees and give it to veteran players. Now, a great deal of the contracts are slotted, and there's not much creativity. The bonuses drop down a bit pick by pick, but the salaries are pretty much the same for any player drafted second round or below.
My daughter Katie, who just turned 20, could probably do a pretty good job of negotiating a contract now just by saying "no" until it got to the right point.
Now, at the top of the first round, there are still guarantees that have to be negotiated, the structure of some of the money, and so there's a little more creativity.
Every UDFA [undrafted free agent] signs a three-year contract. Every drafted player signs a four-year contract, and for those players second round and below, we can extend it after three years. For first-rounders, they sign a four-year contract and then the team has an option after Year 3 to force into play a fifth year that averages what the top players are being paid at the position.
There's still tremendous excitement at the veteran level. Just not as much for rookies.
B/R: You negotiated a number of then-NFL record contracts. What's the trickiest part about negotiating a megadeal?
Steinberg: I think it's the fact that in an NFL negotiation (if it's a rookie), their only choice is to accept the last, best offer of a team or sit out a year (really, no one has done that since Kelly Stouffer in 1987), so the team has tremendous leverage.
When there's no arbitrator, judge or third party deciding what the proper figure is, then the question becomes, "Whose reality is going to prevail, whose concept of what's relevant to what the number should be is going to be the 'winning' one?"
So it's my job to put together a set of exhibits, a rational theory that shows why a player should be paid an extraordinary sum of money, and then try to make sure it's accepted.
In some cases, I'm negotiating with an owner; in some cases, I'm negotiating with a general manager. But it's trying to get that point across and show that person from management that this deal is really in his interest when you have no leverage.
Now, when a player has four years in the league and his contract expires (unless it's a rookie on a fifth-year option), then he becomes a free agent, and the leverage switches.
So what you find that's interesting is that some players who are veteran free agents but not as talented as other players still under contract will get better contracts because the bidding concept is part of it.
The key in all of it is to put yourself in the heart and mind of the person on the other side of the table. To understand the pressures on them, to understand what the economics are and to try to create a paradigm of cooperation that will help achieve a positive goal.
Because what we do is repetitively negotiate with the same people over and over again, so there's never a benefit to being dishonest. There's never a benefit to bragging too much about a deal because the only sure thing is that I'm probably going to be dealing with that same general manager or that same person over and over again.
B/R: What's the biggest misconception fans have about contract negotiations (or even holdouts) in the NFL?
Steinberg: When it comes to holdouts, there's a presupposition that the player is some angry rebel who's defying authority and only cares about the money.
In reality, a player cannot be part of the training camp experience as a rookie unless he is signed to a contract. So it's not within my power to have a player go in on a temporary contract and say, "Hey, let's just work this out over time...he needs to be in camp."
So I'm acutely aware of how critical it is to have a player in camp on time. In the case of a quarterback or an offensive lineman, it's the difference in the capacity to start the first year because you get the reps early.
So it's always mutual fault when that doesn't happen. And so having had 60 first-round draft picks and the very first pick in the NFL draft eight different years, I'm very aware of the fact I have to get that contract done on time.
But if it doesn't turn out to be the right number and it's not acceptable, the player has no choice but to sit out.
I think the other mistake that's made is to assume everything is all about money.
What I do with a player is have him sit down and do an internal inventory, where he thinks about how important short-term economic gain is, how important long-term financial security is, how important is family, how important is geographic location, how important is profile, spiritual values, how important is being on a winning team, the quality of coaching, being a starter, system—and that constellation of values is going to fit differently in different people's lives.
There are players all the time in free agency who go to a team that might not pay quite as well because they like the coach, they think it's a winner, they want to be in a certain part of the country...
There are all sorts of factors that go into the decision-making process that are not necessarily money.
B/R: Off-the-field problems have become increasingly scrutinized in the NFL, both among veterans and rookies. How has that changed since you got into the business?
Steinberg: One thing that's changed dramatically is that three TV networks, a couple of independents, a few radio stations and no Internet got replaced with 300 TV networks, endless talk radio programs and an Internet filled with blogs and content.
Coverage of athletic misbehavior is exponentially higher than it ever was before, but the assumption that there were some "Good Old Days" way back when and athletic behavior has since descended isn't correct. We can chart that we have lower instances of domestic violence and lower instances of drug and alcohol abuse than ever before.
But you're aware because the stories run over and over and over again. You don't just see Ray Rice have one instance where he hits his wife; you see it over and over and over again. But it happened one time. It was one ugly night.
So there's much more awareness. The problem is that it pushes fans away. So we work really hard to make sure players understand about being careful with alcohol, having a designated driver, not going into a bar or nightclub without friends around them to stop some ridiculous fight from happening and all the rest of it.
One incident really is too many, but today, there's no sense of public and private. So the minute an athlete leaves his home, the ubiquitousness of cell phones means his behavior is being scrutinized. People capture with pictures and video what wouldn't have been picked up otherwise, so the league has worked hard with certain programs to affect player behavior.
The irony is that our practice is built on role models. So when I have an athlete cut a PSA that says, "Real men don't hit women," it can do a lot of good instead of football being held up as a poster sport for domestic violence.
Athletes can trigger imitative behavior. We ask they go back to the high school and community that helped shape them to set up scholarship funds, work at the collegiate level (Troy Aikman recently made a $1 million donation to UCLA athletics) and at the pro level to set up programs that affect quality of life positively (Warrick Dunn just put his 42nd single mother and family into their first home). These programs can change life positively.
B/R: Speaking of the Internet, that's been a huge change across the NFL since your early days as an agent. How would you counsel players regarding their social media presence and how that could affect public perception (and potential endorsement deals)?
Steinberg: They have to be extremely careful and understand the viral nature of how information flows today. There was a time when you could give a speech to a small crowd in a town in Alabama, and that was the audience. Today, that speech will go around the world in a matter of hours.
Similarly, the whole concept of Twitter—there are just certain controversial things that don't need to be expressed that way.
For a generation that gets most of its information off a computer screen (be it Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter or what have you), an athlete has to be very careful about the public/private aspect of that. Be careful not to be overly critical, be careful with use of language, and understand the whole world is watching.
His primary role is to be an athlete, and he can do amazing things for charity off the field, but there are certain opinions that we all have in life that once addressed, you rethink it and say, "You know what? I really wish I hadn't said that."
But once they go up on Twitter or other online platforms, they're irreversible—they can't be erased. So caution should rule the day.
B/R: You've had some well-publicized issues with alcoholism in the past but have been in recovery since 2010. With so many young, star players receiving potentially career-killing suspensions for substance abuse, what advice would you offer a young player (or anyone, for that matter) struggling with substance abuse?
I've been public with the fact that I struggled and put everything aside back in 2010 to concentrate on being sober and being a good father.
I think the first key is to understand that it's a disease, and willpower really has a limited effect. There are programs that can help, 12-step programs (which I use) and remarkable, supportive fellowships that can help. Many times, it's hard to do it alone.
What I would tell anyone who is struggling is don't give up hope. There is help available out there.
But here's the problem with athletes. If they truly have an addictive problem, my advice is to put everything aside and focus on that because it literally affects your ability to live. And don't rush back into a hypercompetitive situation that may have been part of the problem in the first place.
People who have addictive problems usually have some subset of emotional difficulties that causes them to abuse substances. So the key, I think, is to focus on that.
I admire the fact that Johnny Manziel, whatever his problem is, took time out to put it first, to put sobriety first. Put that first, and everything else beneficial in your life will flow.
B/R: You've been very outspoken on the topic of player safety and concussions, including an appearance on the documentary League of Denial. What's the biggest area of improvement you've seen for the NFL in this regard versus when you were starting out?
Steinberg: I think the fact it finally does have baseline testing is a help because at least there's an objectified standard to be able to rate how impaired someone is after he gets hit.
The larger problem is subconcussive hits. Every time an offensive lineman hits a defensive lineman at the inception of every football play, it produces a low-level subconcussive event. So you have an offensive lineman walk out of football with 10,000 subconcussive hits (having played through high school, college and the pros), none of which have been diagnosed, and none of which he's aware of, the aggregate of which all but certainly does more brain damage than getting knocked cold three times.
The tip of the iceberg is the "knockout blows" you see on TV. But the real damage is occurring at a different level.
I think we have to move rapidly on this. From the field of helmetry, where the current helmet only protects against skull fracture—there's new technology that uses coils and compression to attenuate or dissipate the energy field. Currently, 46 percent of the force wouldn't go into the head, and they think they can get it into the 90 percent range.
We need to be really careful about at what age we're letting young people start playing tackle football, that maybe flag football is enough until their brains are a little more fully developed.
We need better diagnostic techniques on the sidelines that show someone is impaired so he doesn't go out and engage in further risk.
We need nutraceuticals and pharmaceuticals that can either prophylactically protect the brain or stop it from showing so much damage. The best thing we have right now is hyperbaric oxygen, which seems to have some positive effects on the brain. Ultimately, I think it will be stem cells that cures this.
However, if 50 percent of the moms out there know what I just said and tell their children, "You can play any sport except football," it won't kill football, but it will change the socioeconomics so that you'll have the same sort of people who box, which is sort of a "gladiator" sport.
B/R: What's been the NFL's biggest failing in that regard?
Steinberg: The denial that went on for years about the fact it's a real problem. Elliott Hellman, the league doctor (who had a background in rheumatology—this was the "brain expert") when I brought this subject up years ago and had player safety conferences, called me a "fearmonger."
The fact of the matter is that even in the most recent NFL concussion settlement, it doesn't admit any liability. I'd respect it a lot more if it said, "Brain science is the last frontier. We just didn't know."
The reality of the situation is that pro football, by a 2-to-1 margin, is the most popular sport in America. It's also the most popular form of television entertainment. Last season, the seven most watched television programs were prime-time football games. That's never happened before.
You have a sport that's so dominant—40 million people playing fantasy football by some estimates. One estimate said that 20 percent of the computers used for business were used to play fantasy football—so we are absolutely in this crazy love affair with pro football. Second on popularity? College football.
It's ironic that this problem would be occurring at the height of the popularity of the sport.
B/R: What's the biggest, most important step the NFL needs to take to improve player safety?
Steinberg: I'd like to see it put major money into research of helmetry, major money into detecting subconcussive hits, major money into researching how to heal the brain and help injured players.
We might have seen a better response had the lawsuits not come along and made the NFL fear liability. I'm hoping that with the majority of those lawsuits now settled, we'll see the real NFL—not afraid that making changes is going to put them in a huge legal quandary—move ahead aggressively.
B/R: You've been something of a Renaissance man. Movie consultant (Jerry Maguire, Any Given Sunday), super-agent and best-selling author. In a long and storied career, what gave you the most satisfaction?
Steinberg: The charitable and community programs the athletes did. Obviously, Jerry Maguire was very dramatic in that I haven't been able to walk through an airport or sit down to dinner without someone coming over to say or ask me to say a certain phrase that begins with "show," but there was a moment when Warren Moon asked me to present him for induction into the Hall of Fame.
We had been together in his career for 23 years at that point, and knowing that he had helped send hundreds of young people to college with his scholarship fund, changed lives dramatically with his Crescent Moon Foundation and been an exemplary role model...
It's watching the athletes use their profile to be positive forces in society and believing that we tried to make the sport better than we found it—tried to use it to influence people's lives for the better.
B/R: What do you love most about the NFL?
Steinberg: I love the values football can teach. It gives young people a sense of how to defer present gratification for future success, it teaches self-discipline, it teaches teamwork, it gives them a bonding experience that can be hard to find somewhere else, it teaches the ability to process large amounts of information and apply it in real time.
It teaches courage under pressure—the ability to succeed despite everything seemingly being against you. The quarterback who's thrown multiple interceptions, with the crowd booing him, who can somehow compartmentalize and elevate his play to come through in the end...
It's a parable for life.
It fits the rhythms and has been beautifully designed for television, it's played on an event basis, and it uses all the modern accoutrements of marketing and branding...
It's a marriage made in heaven.
Gary Davenport is an NFL analyst at Bleacher Report and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and the Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Gary on Twitter at @IDPSharks.