Entrepreneurs and Pirates: NBA Agents Lament State of Industry
"It's from Mark Twain, and it (reads), 'I'll always do right, which will surprise some people and astonish the rest,' " Glass said, "It's as simple as that."
If only he were right.
The agent business has never been a simple one, and some of the league's longest-tenured professionals say it has become increasingly more complicated in recent years.
And even dirtier than usual.
Agents are stealing clients in the boldest of ways, looking for a weakness in the business relationship between a player and his representative and using any means necessary to exploit it. Some players and their family members or friends aren't any better, pressuring agents to bend -- no, make that break -- the rules and take their operation under the table if they hope to be the chosen representative. The only law enforcement in this Wild West city is the players' union, which certainly has regulations in place but has had neither the time nor the resources to enforce them.
"This is a business of entrepreneurs and pirates, and an agent decides which one he wants to be," said Mark Termini, who has been in the business for 25 years, negotiated more than $400 million in guaranteed NBA contracts and represented 15 first-round picks. "And some (agents) are a little of both. ... But if you start making deals and cutting deals and doing side deals (with players, their associates or family members), ultimately you get caught up in a game of where they might get you before you get them. There are a number of very successful agents who play that game, and the clients they have lost would fill an All-Star game roster."
Andy Miller doesn't qualify by those final standards, as he still represents perennial All-Stars like Kevin Garnett and Chauncey Billups. But it was the way in which he came to represent a far less famous client, former Sacramento Kings guard Quincy Douby, that ultimately led to the groundbreaking decision against him. Both Miller and Douby's high school coach, Jack Ringel, were deemed guilty of tortious interference -- otherwise known as poaching or, as written by SportsAgentBlog.com, "interfering with a contractual relations claim" -- and ordered to pay Glass $40,000 in damages.
The fact that the transgressions took place surprised no one in the business, of course, but there were plenty of heads turned when Glass' case -- the likes of which is often settled before it goes to an arbitrator -- was resolved by way of a guilty verdict for Miller and Ringel.
And while the 40-page ruling that was obtained by FanHouse focuses mostly on how Miller orchestrated Douby's termination of Glass for his own benefit, a footnote on page 5 sheds light on the issue of side deals that so many agents say must be solved. According to the report, which was written by arbitrator George Nicolau, Ringel -- who coached Douby at Grady High School in Brooklyn, N.Y., and was a father figure to him -- admitted taking $3,000 from agent Ken Glassman on behalf of Douby during his freshman season at Rutgers.
Ringel, who claimed the money was spent by Glassman to keep Douby away from other agents, testified that he wasn't aware that such practices were prohibited under NCAA rules but said, as the report reads, that he "would have accepted the $3,000 even if he had known." That one example, numerous agents say, is merely the tip of an enormous iceberg that doesn't appear to be melting.
Whether it's during the initial recruitment process as a player prepares to enter the NBA or part of a poaching ploy, the willingness of so many agents to, as Termini put it, "do side deals" has made an already-challenging landscape nearly impossible to navigate for those who simply won't go that route. Veteran agent Bill Strickland said it's a significant reason why his NBA client list has dwindled in recent years, from a time when he represented "13 or 14 players" to his current lot of two (it was three until Boston's Rasheed Wallace retired after last season).
"(The illegal tactics) are just an unfortunate reality," said Strickland, who entered the business in 1983. "And the environment is so wrought with this stuff that some people are afraid to throw stones because they're standing in a glass home.
"Right now I represent the fewest number of players that I have in my entire career, but that's because it has become increasingly difficult to sustain relationships and do it the right way."
Agents might not be an agreeable lot, but every one contacted for this piece agreed that the rise in player salaries and subsequent greed from those people around them are at the root of the growing problem. While the average annual salary for the coming season is $5.765 million, it was -- according to a New York Times quote from former player and senator Bill Bradley in a 1989 story -- $9,400 when he entered the league in 1967 and $600,000 when NBAPA founding father and former union head Larry Fleisher died in 1989.
As a result, agents routinely find themselves facing a moral fork in the road: do they refuse to work with players who insist on breaking the rules as a sort of back-alley prequalifier to a business relationship, or pursue the lucrative end no matter the means?
Strickland, a lawyer who said he has never been the subject of "disciplinary actions, arbitrations or any of that kind of stuff" and has tried to "do stuff right," noted one situation in which he attempted to recruit a player through his college coach and athletic director and "it came back to me through the streets that if you got this player you were going to have to, right away, pay some people $100,000."
"Every agent, and every representative -- if he's being honest and if he's been in the business for longer than five minutes -- is going to tell you that he's had to deal with (that) kind of scenario," Termini said. "It's kind of a truth serum."
Strickland saw similar tactics being used with one of his current clients as well.
Before Sacramento Kings small forward and Syracuse product Donte' Greene signed with Strickland in 2008, his uncle was reportedly given a $50,000 line of credit by an agency that was recruiting the Syracuse product leading up to the draft. Ironically and remarkably, the CEO of the agency, Ceruzzi Sports, was the former executive director of the NBA Player's Association, Charles Grantham.
"(The loan) was done because (Greene's uncle, Derrick Marcano) needed the money and we thought he was a person of influence (in Greene's decision to choose an agent)," Grantham told Yahoo! Sports in its March 12, 2009 report.
Greene, whose situation was investigated by Syracuse and did not result in penalties, said at the time of the report that he was unaware of the arrangement. A higher-stakes version of a similar game reportedly involved the same agency's pursuit of former UCLA and current Minnesota forward Kevin Love, with $250,000 being paid to Love's AAU program with the hopes that would help land him.
Yet while the recruiting problems have attracted more publicity and are more complex because of the NCAA/NBA crossover, the methodology is often similar when it comes to poaching in the professional ranks. A family member gets paid. A former AAU coach gets hired at the agency and is given a healthy salary. The player, as a result, makes the switch.
Agent Marc Fleisher, the son of the league's salary-cap-creating father, Larry, blames the certification system for allowing too many unqualified hands in this cookie jar. While a college degree is required to become an agent, that stipulation can be circumvented with a history of negotiating experience (each individual case is reviewed by the NBAPA and a ruling rendered within 30 days). Otherwise, candidates simply must fill out the application form that can be found online and submit $1,600 ($100 for signing up and $1,500 in annual dues) via certified mail.
"I heard there are over 450 certified agents, and you know the number of players there are in the NBA (approximately 450) so a lot of agents are running around with no clients who are willing to do anything or bend any rule in order to get players," said Fleisher, who represents Utah's Andrei Kirilenko and Mehmet Okur and is also a lawyer. "There are no barriers to becoming an agent. Anybody can just send in their money and become an agent. There's no test that you have to take, no prerequisite in terms of either going to law school or having graduated from any sort of (agent) program."
And there are even less barriers for the "runners," the lower-level associates of agents who so often broker the suspect deals. Yet if Major League Baseball does, in fact, become the NBAPA's model, even "runners" would have to become certified. Even still, Marc Fleisher believes the base standards should be raised.
"With no barriers to enter, you can bring a certain level of agent where they have really nothing to lose," Fleisher continued. "They don't have their legal license to lose. They're not held by any particular standard. The union is definitely in a position where they just don't have the resources to run down the claims about somebody poaching somebody's client. They just can't do it. It's not always easy to investigate it. That's what makes the Andy Miller-Keith Glass case so unusual because it actually got to arbitration."
That wasn't the case when a New York jury awarded Marc's brother, Eric, a $4.6 million settlement from Miller back in 2002. Miller cut that check after a bitter divorce with Marc, his former boss who sued him for secretly signing his clients (including Kevin Garnett and Chauncey Billups) before they parted ways. (Loosely-related side note: in yet another sign of how contentious the industry can be, all of this came after the Fleisher brothers had a nasty split of their own. Eric sued Marc in 1995 after claiming, according to a Sporting News report in 2006, "irreconcilable differences that mostly centered on Marc's work ethic.")
While it's clear the Glass-Miller decision could spark change, Termini believes it's the agents who must adapt.
"Agents have been poaching clients since the days of silent movies in Hollywood -- they always have and always will," Termini said. "In this business, you either deal with it or you get out. ... I think the agents whine too much about poaching. The experienced and successful agents find a way to compete."
Yet even Termini admits that the current climate is making it harder than ever to remain competitive.
"I've never paid a player or a person associated with a player -- period," Termini said. "And I can tell you that my career would be impossible to duplicate in the current environment."
Mark Twain, in other words, need not apply.
"When I talk to law students, I tell them, 'You don't have to be Jerry Maguire to be involved with sports,' " Strickland said. "And I don't think you really want to be at this juncture.'"
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