Academic journal article Labor Law Journal

So You Want to Be a Sports Agent

Academic journal article Labor Law Journal

So You Want to Be a Sports Agent

Article excerpt

According to Black's Law Dictionary, an agent is "A person authorized by another to act for him, one intrusted with another's business." A sports agent provides services to an athlete, performing functions legally authorized, with the agent engaging in business transactions on the athlete's behalf.

In about the mid-19th century it was not uncommon in the U.S. and Europe for top theatrical actors and opera singers to employ agents. These agents obtained bookings for their clients and negotiated their pay for performing.

It seems that the first sports agent in America was Christopher "Christy" Walsh, who began representing baseball player Babe Ruth in 1921.1 Walsh was a sports cartoonist turned ghostwriter who placed articles by Ruth in newspapers and magazines. Another of the Babe's ghostwriters was William J. Slocum, about whom Ruth said "Bill writes more like 1 do than anyone I know."2 Walsh produced the popular feature "Babe Ruth's Annual All Star Team." Because Ruth was a lavish and impulsive spender, saving little or no money, Walsh became his financial advisor. Prudent investments allowed Ruth to accumulate wealth from his ample baseball earnings and to enjoy a comfortable retirement. Walsh also negotiated numerous product endorsements, and although Ruth did his own salary negotiations with the Yankees, Walsh advised him behind the scenes.3

Another early sports agent was a theatrical promoter named Charles C. ("Cash and Carry") PyIe. In 1925 PyIe represented football player Harold "Red" Grange. Known as the "Galloping Ghost" for his gridiron exploits at the University of Illinois, Grange had PyIe negotiate a contract with the Chicago Bears for $100,000 for eight games. PyIe also handled Grange's product endorsements and appearances in movies.

Apart from famous stars like Ruth and Ty Cobb, baseball players were paid roughly the same as moderately successful people in other careers. Professional football players made even less. In 1939, the first winner of the Heisman Trophy, halfback Jay Berwanger of the University of Chicago, was drafted by the Bears but chose instead to pursue a business career. Another distinguished running back, Dick Kazmaier of Princeton, said this: "Even as the Heisman Trophy winner, I didn't need an agent to tell me that I would do better to play touch football at Harvard Business School than accept George Halas' offer to join the Chicago Bears. A No. 1 pick in 1952 signed for less than $10,000, not $1 million."4

It was not until the mid-1960s that agents began to emerge in professional team sports. Reserve clauses in contracts prevented players from negotiating with other clubs, and consequently they had relatively little bargaining power over their salaries. Also, when agents sought to represent players they were not welcomed by team officials who zealously guarded their almost complete control. When a player for the Green Bay Packers tried to get legendary coach Vince Lombardi to negotiate with his agent, Lombardi said "I wouldn't get discouraged, son. Maybe your new team will talk to him."5

A noteworthy incident occurred in 1966, when future Hall of Fame pitchers Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale formed a tandem to increase their bargaining power with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Agent J. William Hayes, who represented movie and television stars, told the Dodgers that Koufax and Drysdale would not sign contracts with the club unless they were paid a million dollars, $167,000 for each player for three years. The Dodgers stonewalled, and shortly before the season began the players signed individual contracts for far less money.

Providing the spark for widespread use of agents was the achievement of free agency in the mid-1970s by pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNaIIy. The Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) under the leadership of Marvin Miller had negotiated a provision in the collective bargaining agreement with the owners for arbitration of player grievances. …

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