Show Me the Ethics
Two local sports agents fight an ugly stereotype
Ronni Sayewitz, Staff Writer, Boca/Delray Jewish Times
"To David," reads the autographed magazine clipping that hangs on the wall in the gregarious sports agent's office. "An honorable agent -- NOT an oxymoron."
Such sentiment from Mike Beeck, son of former White Sox owner Bill Beeck, is surprising in a profession where sleazy deals and backstabbing negotiations are commonplace. Especially when the clipping is coupled with a letter from then-White Sox general manager Roland Hemond praising the baseball agent for "showing me the ultimate in sportsmanship."
But David M. Sloane of Taurus Sports Associated in Coral Springs seems a far cry from the stereotype of the slick, fast-talking sports agent.
It was apparent from the moment he opened his front door wearing baggy shorts, scuffed sneakers and a pink polo shirt. Glossy family pictures, his high school football photo and the gold-encased ashes of a beloved Labrador retriever dominate the scattered sports mementos in his home office.
He sends potential clients attorney Robert Ruxin's "An Athlete's Guide to Agents" to help them avoid the pitfalls of poor management. And he says he never makes a deal he'd be ashamed to mention to his 10-year old son.
"Sure, it would be nice to negotiate and $8 or $9 million contract for someone like [outlandish Chicago Bulls forward] Dennis Rodman. Bud I don't want the headache that comes with him," said Mr. Sloane, 44. He manages 19 baseball players, including New York Yankees pitcher David Weathers and Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Carlos Delgado. "That's more important to me than how many zeros are in my bank account."
He is not alone. And thanks to last month's box-office smash "Jerry Maguire," the public is taking a second look at the sports agent industry.
The movie casts Tom Cruise as an agent struggling to hold on to his ethics in a business where dollar signs are the bottom line, and a nice guys seems guaranteed to finish last.
In South Florida, agents like Mr. Sloane and Marc R. Pollack of Pro-Star Sports Management in Plantation are quietly fighting to do the same.
"There are people in this business who would shake your hand and stab you in the back," said Mr. Pollack, who combined his lucrative law practice with a college friend's sports agency three years ago. "But there are some really good people, too."
Hollywood paints an accurate picture of a world where competition is fierce and trustworthy friends are few and far between, the agents said. For some, multi-million-dollar contracts and stolen clients are all in a day's work.
The stakes are especially high in Florida, which consistently produces world-class athletes such as pro-bowl running back Emmitt Smith, all-star basketball guard Mitch Richmond and baseball-football wonder Deion Sanders.
"Florida is among the worst as far as unscrupulous agents,: said Dr. Ruth Alexander, who heads the University of Florida's sports management program. "It happens anywhere you produce a lot of good, strong athletes who go on to pro contracts."
The recent rise of free agency compounded the problem. Suddenly, the balance of power shifted as teams were forced to offer exorbitant salaries to snare the best players in the open marketplace.
"The money is insane," said sportscaster marc Goldberg of Wellington. "Agents have to keep up or they'll have no clients."
Increased power led to increased responsibility. Within a 20-minute phone call, sports agents can play the role of contract negotiator, business advisor, legal counsel, teacher, public relations representative, best friend, confidant, marriage counselor, psychologist and talent agent. They supply sports equipment. They seek medical advice.
And many also add addiction counselor and bail bondsman to their lengthy job descriptions. When Seattle Seahawk Brian Blades was convicted of manslaughter by a jury and acquitted by the trial judge last summer, Miami agent Drew Rosenhaus was there -- comforting family members, talking to the press and supporting his client.
A very, very important hat is being their friend -- somebody they can trust and talk to about anything," said Mr. Pollack, 33, who majored in psychology at UF before he entered the University of Miami's law school. "I'm available 24 hours a day, whether they have a problem with their girlfriend or they're freaking out because training camp is the hardest thing they've ever been though."
The temptation is powerful to show clients the largest amounts of money in the quickest ways. So ethical violations abound.
In the past 16 years, 22 states -- including Florida-- enacted mandatory regulations that require sports agents to register with the state and disclose information such as educational background and convictions for professional misconduct. The hockey, football, baseball and basketball players' associations created similar programs.
College professors such as Dr. Alexander are also following their lead. Many try to educate their student athletes about sports law, NCAA rules an unprincipled agents.
The threat of financial and criminal sanctions chilled some of the more abusive practices of some agents. But the media is still peppered with cases of agents who mismanage their clients' earnings, solicit college athletes, lie to clients or teams, forge power of attorney and receive kickbacks from coaches or financial planners. And that's just to name a few.
Agents Norby Walters and Lloyd Bloom pleased guilty in federal court to charges involving allegations of threats to clients that a reputed organized crime figure would break their legs if they switched representation. Mr. Bloom was sentenced to 500 hours of community service and paid $149,300 in fines. Mr. Walters spent 18 months in prison.
More Rosenhaus faces disciplinary action by the NFL Players Association if agent Tim Irwin proves allegations made at last week's NFLPA seminar that Mr. Rosenhaus stole his client, Miami Dolphins defensive end Shane Burton.
Mr. Rosenhaus denied his colleague's claim. Bur Mr. Irwin was met with a standing ovation from the 250 sports agents at the Indianapolis seminar, according to a Sun-Sentinel report.
Many agents have accuse Mr. Rosenhaus of hurting the Miami Dolphins' chemistry through attempts to steal clients. They claim he convinced players that their agents, coaches, general managers or starting teammates were preventing them from getting a good deal.
The Dolphins, expected to be a Super Bowl contender in 1995, finished 9-7 and were knocked out of the playoffs in the first round. Last season, with too many front-loaded contracts that forced them to lose key players, the Dolphins did not make the playoffs.
Mr. Walters and Mr. Bloom's actions were clearly illegal. But, like many sports agent controversies, stealing clients falls into a grayer zone.
So the debate continues over where to draw the moral line.
"It's definite [that there's a different moral standard among some sports agents]," said Mr. Sloane, who's been an agent for 23 years. "There are people out there who fell there are no rules. They'll supply drugs, prostitutes -- whatever it takes to get what they want."
But Mr. Pollack emphasized that the same can be said in most business fields. Sports agents stand out more because they are in the limelight, he said.
Mr. Sloane said he avoids temptation by drawing on the string sense of ethics he learned from his father.
The elder Sloane was a Russian cloth manufacturer who came to the United States when he was 12. He lost everything when his first business failed in the 1920s. He could have declared bankruptcy to avoid paying his creditors. Instead, he slowly paid then 10 cents a week so they would not lose their money.
"He brought me up to believe that the most important thing I have is my reputation," Mr. Sloane said.
Law school impressed on Mr. Pollack the importance of standing his ethical ground. But his morals come from his family, who he said instilled in him strong Jewish values.
"My family taught me to be a good, honest, hardworking person," said Mr. Pollack, who recently added projected first-round NFL draft picks Tremaine Mack and Reinard Wilson to his 15-client roster. "I know there are certain things I could do to make more money off my clients. But that's not who I am, and they know what I tell them is always in their best interests."
Financial management is the area most frequently abused by sports agents, according to "An Athlete's Guide To Agents." There are plenty of sob stories like that of St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Bob Forsch, who sued his agent for $192,491.60 for allegedly investing his money in questionable ventures, including a tavern for the agent's wife and a house for his attorney.
Mr. Pollack and his partner, David Levine, refuse to handle clients' money. They analyze budgets and stock portfolios, but they leave financial management to specialized firms.
Mr. Pollack even avoids referring players to his father, a successful stockbroker, to avoid any hint of kickbacks or unscrupulous dealings.
"Most of these athletes have gone from just scraping by to becoming very wealthy people," said Mr. Pollack. "We want to educate them to become successful business people. And one of the worst things they can do is give someone too much power."
He applies the same principles to sports management. "Teams want to know that they are dealing with an ethical agent," he said. "Any time there is trust between the parties, negotiations will be more successful."
There are other advantages to playing by the rules during contract negotiations.
Bull Kuharich, New Orleans Saints general manager, told the press that Mr. Rosenhaus' tactics were "certainly a big factor" in his decision to trade cornerback Robert Massey instead of renegotiating his $600,000-a-year contract.
"I prefer not to deal with someone I can't trust," said Frank Wren, Florida Marlins vice president and assistant general manager. "I would have questions about a player who would associate himself with someone who is not ethical."
Ray Suplee, whose 25-year-old son, Ray, plays on the Tampa Bay Devil Ray's minor league team, said ethics were a tremendous factor in his decision to sign with Mr. Sloane.
As a Sarasota accountant who lists several baseball and football players as his clients, Mr. Suplee said that he's watched many athletes get duped by agents willing to say or do anything to get them to sign.
"Mr. Sloane is an exception," he said. "He doesn't just tell you what you want to hear."
Staying in bounds
That may be true. But with millions of dollars up for grabs for top-quality athletes (and their agents, who generally command about 3 to 5 percent of their clients' earnings), it is easy to understand the desire to stop at nothing to get the best deal.
"I take pride in my ethics. But I am a relentless, ruthless warrior," Mr. Rosenhaus told Sports Illustrated. With more than 50 clients, he manages the fourth largest number of players in the NFL. "I am not 100 percent honest with teams. Teams are not supposed to believe agents."
Such statements leave agents like Mr. Sloane and Mr. Pollack with a difficult choice.
Their straightforward assurances of honest dealings fail to tempt young athletes blinded by extravagant signing bonuses of cash, cars and houses.
Mr. Sloane said he represented a player for free for four years who was not playing well and was tight on money. He also broke ranks with a successful athlete who neglected to pay his accountant.
After Mr. Sloane released his client, he paid the accountant's bill, which was less than $1,000.
"There's a lot of phoniness in this business an a lot of salesmanship," Mr. Pollack said.
Eric Green became the highest-paid tight end in the NFL in 1995 thanks to what reports said was Mr. Rosenhaus' bogus claim that another team had topped the Dolphins' $1.88 million offer. Mr. Green eventually signed with Miami for $12 million over six years.
Such results are tempting. But to some agents, the ends don't justify the means.
"Once you lose your ethics, you can't get that back," Mr. Pollack said. "It seems like a big NFL, but really it's a small, close-knit group of people."
A frustrated Mr. Sloane said he has contemplated changing careers. But then he pints to an autographed picture of Toronto Blue Jays Mike Timlin that hangs on his wall: "To David," it reads. "Thank you for helping me attain my dream."
And that, Mr. Sloane said, makes it all worthwhile.
"Sometimes my job is a headache," he said. "But there are few people I would change places with."