INDIANAPOLIS – After seeing how so many of their brethren reacted during an NFL Players Association meeting for agents on Friday night, a number of player reps now fear that the weakest link to how the union handles the labor battle with owners is the agent community itself.
"It was scary how little some of the agents knew about what's going on and what's about to happen," said an agent in town for the NFL scouting combine. That agent was among a half-dozen who estimated that perhaps as few as 5 percent of the almost 1,000 agents in attendance Friday appeared capable of explaining the complex issues to the players they represent.
If, as expected, the NFL votes Thursday to lock out the players and the union decertifies when the sides fail to reach a new CBA extension, the failure of agents to adequately understand the issues at hand could play a role in the leverage game between the league and the union.
"The problem you're going to have is that instead of calming the players down, you're going to have a lot of agents panicking," another agent said. "If you're a good agent, you need to explain all the moves to your players so they can understand the process. But I think you're going to have a lot of agents who tell their guys, 'Hey, you have to call the union and tell them to get this thing done.' "
While the problem is mitigated somewhat by the fact that a large group of the nearly 2,000 active or incoming players are represented by only a handful of agents, there was still ample reason for concern. That concern is acute because, unlike any time before, many agents are facing economic stress if the lockout lasts into June or longer.
That conclusion came after a number of questionable comments made at Friday's agent meeting. Among the misinformed or questionable remarks were:
• Several agents referring to the dispute with the league being a strike by the players rather than a lockout by the owners. At one point, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith seemed flabbergasted by the insinuation that the pending dispute could be a strike.
• One agent who tried to corner Smith into saying in front of the entire session of agents what percentage the NFLPA would be willing to accept from the NFL to settle the issue now. Numerous agents were taken aback that a fellow agent would be so naïve in how such a high-level negotiation should be approached. Giving out such information would have potentially cornered Smith in future negotiations with the league.
• Another agent who complained about the amount of spending he has had to for his draft-eligible players. Specifically, the agent noted not only the training and housing he has to do for his athletes, but also such luxury items as paying for getting them into clubs and parties.
"As that guy was talking, I was thinking, 'Did you even think twice before you opened your mouth?' " a prominent agent said.
The issue of investment by agents in draft-eligible players is a major issue right now as the specter of a lockout looms larger by the day.
For the better part of the past 15 years, agents have paid to train and house players in advance of the combine. The cost runs somewhere in the range of $15,000 to $20,000 per player. Once a player was drafted or signed as an undrafted free agent, the costs of training would disappear because the players would then be working with their teams and getting ready for the season.
If there's a long lockout, many agents believe that the investment in players could reach $50,000 or more because the players won't be able to work with their teams. There will still be a draft at the end of April, but there won't be any minicamps, workouts or other team activities until the labor issue is resolved.
That means that the responsibility to train players will now revert to the agents. In fact, the pressure to do so is basically a three-pronged problem. First, the players are going to want to stay in shape so they can make their teams when football resumes. Second, the agent, who has no legal right to demand repayment of those training fees and who doesn't get any money from the player until a contract is signed, will want the players in shape so that they can make their teams and pay off the agent's investment.
Third, there is the pressure to keep players happy at a time when they normally would expect to start enjoying the spoils of making it to the NFL, even if only by being drafted.
"Let's say you have already put $20,000 into a player, the league locks out, it's May and your player wants to go back to working out," an agent said. "If you say no, that player is going to say to himself, 'You're my agent and you're not supporting me' and he'll go sign with another agent who will pay for more training and whatever else he wants."
The situation, combined with the likelihood of a rookie salary scale in the next CBA, has been so problematic that at least two prominent agents said they did not recruit college players as clients for fear of putting out too much money for training. One agency that currently has 13 draft-eligible players said it expects to spend nearly $1 million on supporting those players if the lockout stretches into August.
To a lesser extent, the issue could be problematic for agents with veteran players. For instance, two agents said over the weekend that they have received calls from veteran players who were wondering when they would receive their offseason workout bonuses.
Both agents were dumbfounded by the fact that the players didn't know that workout bonuses won't be paid if there is a lockout.
"There's a lot of stuff out there where you have to explain some really basic stuff to guys," an agent said. "Your player is not going to want to hear it. There's going to be a lot of pressure. A lot."