Return of the agent

Sports agent Leigh Steinberg is fighting his way back to the top after a struggle with alcoholism. Photo courtesy of Steinberg Sports & Entertainment

By Max Moline

Last month, Leigh Steinberg’s second book, The Agent: My 40-Year Career Making Deals and Changing the Game, was released. It chronicles his rise to the top of the sports agent world, the relationships he built, his struggle with alcoholism, and his fight to return to the profession he loves. Next month, he’ll be sober for four years.

Steinberg did not grow up wanting to be a sports agent, though he did grow up around sports. While his family could afford few luxuries, they always made time to get to several baseball games a year. His grandfather’s Hillcrest Country Club in Los Angeles featured performances from many big-name Jewish comedians, and young Leigh was taken to his first baseball game by the great George Burns.

“My biggest sports hero of all time is Sandy Koufax,” he said in a telephone interview. Koufax had a great deal of influence on Steinberg growing up as a Jewish role model standing his ground. In fact, when asked whether he’d ever been starstruck before, he said the closest he’s ever come was when he met Koufax. He also said that if he’d had the opportunity, he’d have wanted to represent the man he called “the Jackie Robinson for Jews” – Hank Greenberg.

While doing a pre-law program at UC-Berkeley, Steinberg befriended Steve “Bart” Bartowski, the school’s star quarterback. Bart had been telling Steinberg about his struggles with his then-agent, and one day suggested that Steinberg represent him in the upcoming NFL draft. Months later, Steinberg negotiated what was then the largest rookie contract in pro football history for Bartowski.

He decided that he’d insist Bartowski and any future clients set up a charity in their name. They should not be playing simply for a paycheck, he reasoned, they should “do something that will make a lasting legacy.” Despite regularly meeting some of the most famous people in the world, Steinberg’s philosophy is that “it’s not about the stars; it’s about the values.”

Steinberg also dealt with a significant number of racial issues, particularly while representing Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon. He fought for Moon’s acceptance, and later introduced Moon at his 2006 Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

Of the ongoing controversy over Washington D.C.’s NFL team name, he said, “You have to look at it in terms of the impacted group. It’s not how the issue hits people like you and I who are not Native American. But if it’s offensive to them, then you have to change it.”

Things seemed to be going great for Steinberg, but something was wrong. “I had a crisis of conscious because of players getting hit in the head and knocked out,” he said.

The same issue was a turning point for Tom Cruise’s title character in Jerry Maguire — a character for which Steinberg was the inspiration. Steinberg began working harder for player safety. “It’s one thing not to be able to drive to pick up your child when you’re 40. It’s another thing not to recognize that child,” he said.

Photo courtesy of St. Martin's Press
Photo courtesy of St. Martin’s Press

In the 1990s, Jerry Maguire director Cameron Crowe started following Steinberg around, attending camps, the draft and all sorts of events to make sure the movie painted an accurate picture of the life of an agent. He even flew actor Cuba Gooding Jr., who played fictional Arizona wide receiver Rod Tidwell in the movie, to Phoenix for Super Bowl XXX in 1996 to show him what it was like to experience a big game. Steinberg went on to consult for the movies Any Given Sunday and For the Love of the Game.

Steinberg was at the top of his game. However, as a result of several factors, most notably the loss of his father to cancer, he turned to alcohol.

“I started to spiral down by 2007, ‘08, and ‘09, and by 2010 I realized that I needed to make a change.” He turned his practice over to his fellow agents so that he could focus on being a better father and recovering from his alcoholism.

He is now making a comeback to the world of sports agency, movie consulting and working with sustainable technology to create a safer, more eco-friendly and more educational sports industry. In addition to restarting his annual tradition of a star-studded Super Bowl party, he’s looking to return to the original form that led to his representing eight first overall NFL draft picks and seven Hall of Famers.

As an athlete with Leigh Steinberg as your agent, “you would have someone who is working with you that truly understood your greatest fears and anxieties and your greatest hopes and dreams; who truly was plugged in and sensitive to what your true hopes and desires,” he said.

Steinberg also places a tremendous amount of importance on preparing for athletes’ second careers, saying that “sports is a great springboard.”

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