Retired players launch misguided attack on agents

The passion, anger, frustration and suspicion came flowing out of Joe DeLamielleure like water from Niagara Falls.

DeLamielleure (left) during his HOF induction in 2003.
(Getty Images)

“Call an agent, why would I ever want to do that?” the fiery former Buffalo Bills guard asked. “I don’t need to talk to an agent. I know what I think. I know the facts … they can call me if they like.

“But I know those guys who represent the first-round picks, they don’t want to change the system.”

That system, farcical to many, is the rookie salary scale. DeLamielleure, sounding ready to strap on pads, is one of 78 Pro Football Hall of Famers who recently signed a letter from the Fourth and Goal group of retired players complaining about the system and demanding a change. However, DeLamielleure and the letter – posted on the Fourth and Goal website and sent to media members – didn’t stop in detailing inequities of rookie salaries – player agents were accused of manipulating the system in the process.

“It is disappointing that this system of rewarding unproven players with guaranteed bonuses has been allowed to continue for another year,” the letter reads. “Player agents are also reaping the benefits of the current system and do not want to see it change. If bonuses were standardized, there would be no need for a player agent to get paid for negotiating that part of a contract. Last year player agents received approximately $14 million just from the bonus portion of the 32 rookies selected in the first round.

“We are concerned that player agents might have some influence over the NFLPA and its decision to continue this system. There was a clear conflict of interest when Gene Upshaw was at the helm and was represented by player agent Tom Condon. We hope that DeMaurice Smith is not influenced by the power, privilege and perks that these agents and their agencies have wielded in the past.”

While the agent community isn’t always portrayed in the most flattering light, here’s a big reason why that assessment is problematic: They’re trained negotiators who understand money. While some of them might be disreputable, the good ones can be a huge help to the process. Both current and former players need them.

Even DeLamielleure recognizes that fact.

“These kids who come in and have millions of dollars in their pocket, they need help with that,” he said. “I know I wouldn’t have been able to handle it by myself.”

Sadly, however, when it comes to the bigger picture, DeLamielleure and others have a blind spot about agents. That spot is created by the waves of green that are flowing to a handful of rookies who don’t appear to deserve it.

The rookie salary cap works well to keep down the salaries for the vast majority of draft picks, but no longer works for the top six to 10 players. This year, for instance, expect No. 1 overall pick Sam Bradford(notes) of the St. Louis Rams to get a deal that could include nearly $50 million in guaranteed money. That comes on the heals of Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford(notes) getting $41.7 million guaranteed last year as part of a six-year, $72 million contract.

Like most fans, former players, veteran players and just about anybody with common sense, those contracts and the next half-dozen or so are out of whack.

“It’s ridiculous,” DeLamielleure said. “Guys who have never played a down are making this kind of money when it should be going to veterans.”

The NFL and the NFL Players Association agree in part with the retired players. The two sides have held extensive talks on fixing the system as part of the negotiations on the collective bargaining agreement. One of the plans from the NFL would have changed the system and moved $100 million of that money to the pension fund, presumably to help player who retired prior to 1993. Those are the ones in greatest need.

The NFLPA turned that idea down for now. As a practical matter, the union is focused on the bigger issue of the overall CBA and can’t afford to give up any bargaining chips. For retired players, that led to continued frustration and now accusation that agents pushed union leadership to turn down the deal.

Coincidentally, the idea to divert $100 million from money going to rookies to the pension fund came from agent Marvin Demoff, who is considered by many NFL executives to be the greatest agent of all time.

Sadly, the impatience that the Fourth and Goal group is showing is leaving scorched earth where the union needs growth. The belief promulgated by Fourth and Goal that agents are pushing to keep the current system simply isn’t true.

“Whatever system they want is fine because we’re going to do well either way,” said Ben Dogra, a lead negotiator for Creative Artists Agency’s football division. “… If you make it slotted and an agent has to wait a few years to get paid, the only people who are going to be hurt are people just getting started in the business. The only way someone is going to be able to break in that way is if they’re coming from another business where they made money, they’re independently wealthy or they’re breaking off from another firm and taking some veteran clients with them. Otherwise, you’re going to have to wait too long to get paid on a player.”

Ultimately, Dogra said good agents will still do well for themselves whether rookies get the money or it goes to veterans.

“You still have a certain amount of money that’s going to be spent on players regardless of where it goes, right?” Dogra asked. “We’re still talking about the same percentage of money that goes to the agents. It just comes from a different place.”

That’s something that the folks at Fourth and Goal would be wise to understand as well. At such a crucial time, when a percentage point in the negotiations is worth potentially hundreds of millions of dollars over time, the NFLPA needs solidarity in its ranks. Fourth and Goal needs that if it expects the union to share any more of that largesse with retired players.

Instead, Fourth and Goal is creating suspicion and mistrust in an area where it doesn’t exist.

QUICK SLANTS

Give attorney David Cornwell credit for keeping quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s(notes) suspension to only six games with a possible reduction to four. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was ready to hand down a 10-game suspension that could have gone to three when Cornwell rightly argued that such a punishment would be worse than a three-time violation (four-game suspension) of the NFL’s substance abuse policy.

Goodell (right) with draft pick Trent Williams(notes) during the first round.
(Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

Perhaps the best moment of the NFL draft last week came Saturday during the final four rounds. At one point, Goodell had a group of roughly 30 fans around him asking for pictures and autographs. Long-time NFL scribe Don Banks of SI.com remarked how odd that scene would have been to consider back in the days when Paul Tagliabue was commish. Odd does not begin to describe what that might have been.

Long-time NFL spokesman Joe Browne, who announced his retirement this week, deserves a long round of applause. Anybody who spends 45 years working for one company is a trooper and Browne was certainly a great soldier for the NFL’s cause. Browne, who was the league’s longest-tenured employee, goes back to the days when there were roughly 12 people working in the league office. Moreover, he’s a man with a wealth of common sense advice. Chiefly, for all those people who want to work in sports, getting a degree in sports management isn’t the key. “Actually work in sports, work for a team, show that you’re willing to put in the long hours because you love it,” Browne said three years ago in an interview. “I hear young people all the time tell me, ‘I want to work in sports.’ OK, but do you know what that really means?”

Jason Cole is a national NFL writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Apr 30, 2010