Training camps start to open later this week in the National Football League this week and the nation's six months of cold turkey withdrawal from the top rated sports attraction will soon be over. So it was only appropriate that the National Football League Player's Association held its annual seminar for new or "rookie" sports agents last Thursday and Friday. I began my career in 1975 representing the very first overall NFL Draft pick, Steve Bartkowski, who signed the largest rookie contract in NFL history, which eclipsed previous college legends O.J. Simpson and Joe Namath -- the concept of being a new rookie was very, very strange. I had represented the very first pick in the NFL eight times -- I represented 60 first round draft picks in total -- had half the starting quarterbacks in the league as clients one weekend and have eight clients in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But due to an alcohol problem I have taken a several year hiatus to bring it under control. The new Collective Bargaining Agreement in 2011 led the NFL Players Association to re-certify every agent. So, I was a "new agent" starting all over again.
Like Rip Van Winkle, I went to sleep with an NFL which had huge rookie bonuses and tremendous creativity in contracts, and awakened to a dramatically changed set of rules. A hard rookie salary cap which drastically slashed first-year bonuses, required four-year contracts for all rookies and the ability of clubs to force first rounders to sign a fifth-year option had replaced the Wild, Wild West of negotiating. There was a series of programs which allowed players to get matching salary savings for annuities, health treatment for partially or totally disabled retirees, and a program for treating players with dementia. The new collective bargaining agreement is over 300 pages, and the union requires mastery of all its' rules, along with mastery of a new steroid and substance abuse program, and the pages of rules governing agent behavior. The NFLPA is to be commended for the tighter scrutiny of agent behavior. Since the NFLPA takes the position that under NLRB Law it is the sole bargainer for wages, hours and conditions for the players, and has the right to negotiate every individual contract -- it then deeds out on a case by case basis the right for individual contract negotiations only to agents it certifies. There is tremendous due diligence into the background of agents. The NFLPA requires a post-graduate degree, and liability insurance for agents.
A significant amount of the nomenclature I had become familiar with over 35 years has completely changed. It is similar to when a quarterback changes teams and is presented with a new playbook that has it's own unique vernacular that has nothing to do with anything he has learned previously. It is like studying a foreign language. So I frantically crammed early last week. I realized that the money in the NFL has been redistributed to proven, productive veterans and first round rookies no longer.
Nothing has been easy these past few years, and the journey to Washington resembled the plot of the film Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. The middle seat on a flight in economy guarantees that the largest human beings on the planet will occupy the adjacent seats, if not a baby who cries non-stop for the duration. When my OC flight arrived in Atlanta, there was a monumental series of lightning and thunderstorms which had closed the airport for most of the day. The flight was very late and arrived at the farthest gate. The connection was at the farthest possible distance, some six terminals away. When I finally got to Washington D.C., I discovered I had left my phone charger at home. You will never know what a central role a cellphone plays in your life until you are without one for three days. We could not get a reservation in the hotel where the seminar was located. After the first day I left the hotel and walked right into a blinding monsoon that caused flash flooding throughout the area. I was drenched to the core, my sweater and slacks have still not dried out -- they will be in quarantine for quite some time.
A steady succession of aspiring agents came up to me and told me how their parents had heard me speak, or that they had grown up following my career.They ratcheted up the pressure by telling me I would have it easy. Little did they know that pre-2011 knowledge might be an impediment. Since I went to UC Berkeley at a time when we vowed we would never trust anyone over thirty, I could not believe how young the assemblage was. I looked for someone who might have a charger for my Blackberry, and every single person I asked had an iPhone and looked at my phone as a relic from another age.
The tension in the room when the 60 question test began was overwhelming. I hadn't been in environment like that since 1974 when I took the Bar exam. Many questions required complex calculation and there I sat with my long division. The speakers had done an excellent job over the two days I was there trying to explain basic concepts, but the test was fairly complex. It was open book, but try finding some arcane regulation among the 350 pages of relevant material. I just took it like a normal test and didn't confuse myself looking anything up. I finished in an hour and half, far ahead of the other 200 plus applicants. That either means that I may squeak through or that I totally missed the concepts.
Starting over is an adventure but in some ways it is easier and more invigorating than trying to hold together a dynasty. And... are you ready for some football!
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