What did Jerry Maguire do when he could no longer show his clients the money?
He got sober.
Leigh Steinberg, the one-time super-agent who was the muse for Cameron Crowe’s award-winning blockbuster, was the definition of down and out.
Truly one of sports’ most influential people of the past 30 years, Steinberg was bankrupt and in serious in league trouble just two years ago. In all, he had lost more than $3 million and had arrests for driving under the influence and public intoxication. Even worse: he lost his agent certification.
Now clean, he’s re-certified in football and has written a buzz-generating book that claims, among other things, that Ryan Leaf sabotaged the 1998 NFL Draft by blowing off a meeting with then-Colts coach Jim Mora.
The autobiography’s title? The Agent: My 40-Year Career Making Deals and Changing the Game. It is on sale now.
So why write the book?
“I had some opinions and philosophies that were worth expressing. One of the contexts is the traditional agency is misplaced. It defines a player as sole a function of his bank book. A real relationship should start with peeling back the onion of the client, so you can understand his deep anxieties and fears and his greatest dreams. [The key is] to treat an athlete like a person.”
What else is wrong with contemporary sports agency?
“It wrongly assumes a labor-management confrontation. I understood very early on that the real battle with the NFL was the battle it has against Major League Baseball, Home Box Office, Walt Disney World. The fan has a choice. To ever have destructive individual negotiations that push fans away or to have CBA which pits millionaires against billionaires that pushes fans away doesn't make sense.”
You mention that you had a crisis of conscience in the 1980s over head injuries. How so?
“When I would take the clients to the doctor after they had a concussion, there was no answer to the question, ‘How many is too many?’ I held a series of concussion conferences in the [1990s] to explain the state of knowledge at that point. Not much changed. In 2007, we did it again, and then the neurologists were able to say that they felt three or more concussions was the trigger for exponentially higher rates of ALS, dementia, depression, CTE. At that point I called it a ticking time bomb.”
And it’s not just the big knockout blows that are dangerous, right?
“No, on every play, when an offensive player hits a defensive player, there are low-level concussive events. A concussion is a blow to the head affecting change in brain function. A high schooler could have 10,000 subconcussive hits and not know it. The cumulative is much more impactful than being knocked out three times. I think this all poses an existential threat to football.”
Can you elaborate on some of the personal demons you’ve had to conquer?
“In the 2000s, I started to experience personal reverses. My father died a long death from cancer. My two boys diagnosed with serious eye problems. Our house flooded; we had to knock it to the ground. Ultimately, I got divorced. It got to the point where I felt like Gulliver on the beach being tethered down. Unfortunately, I turned to alcohol.”
How did you come back from that?
“By March of 2010, I finally had enough. I gave the practice to the younger agents. I withdrew and went into sober living. I vowed, if nothing else, I would be sober and a good father. Went through the 12-step program. That was four years ago. Now we’re back up. On March 21, it will be four years [since my last drink].”
What is that process like?
“The first thing is to break denial and realize that you’re powerless over alcohol. No one wants to admit that. It’s a concept of having a disease in the brain. Rehabs didn't work for me. … I couldn't stop drinking. I had to go up to sober living, do the 12-step program. Very different. On a certain level, it’s about saving your life. I just stayed in that zone and tuned the rest of the world out and just healed. The reason I've been open about it is with the hope that somebody else that feels hopeless, is struggling, thinks that there's no redemption for them. They might read about my story, and it might give them hope."