Leigh Steinberg Wants To Save The Nfl From Itself

Leigh Steinberg hardly looks the part of one of the country's top sports agents. Spitting dark streaks of tobacco juice into a plastic cup, the 43-year-old Steinberg pads around his plush Newport Beach (Calif.) office in bare feet, baggy blue jeans, and an untucked button-down oxford shirt. But don't let the rumpled style fool you. On a recent Friday afternoon, with riots raging in Los Angeles, it took Steinberg all of five minutes to arrange for three of the National Football League's top stars--and, not coincidentally, his clients--to appear on local TV shows and appeal for calm.

That's just the sort of quick thinking that Steinberg relishes. For the past 17 years, Steinberg's ability to bag huge salary packages has lured the NFL's top draft choices, including this year's first-round picks Desmond Howard of the University of Michigan, David Klingler of the University of Houston, and Tommy Maddox of the University of California at Los Angeles. As part of the deals, Steinberg insists that players plow part of their money into good causes. "I believe you're put on this earth to make a difference," says Steinberg. "And athletes have such a unique opportunity as role models."

Now, Steinberg wants to make another sort of difference: He is out to save the National Football League from itself. With less than a month to go before the scheduled start of a trial that could result in unlimited free agency for NFL players, Steinberg has been crisscrossing the country meeting with owners and players to sell his peace plan. He fears that if it's not adopted, a ruinous "civil war" will break out.

SALARY POOL. Steinberg's ideas, he insists, could make everyone in the NFL, including agents, a lot better off. First, he says, football should move to a system akin to basketball: Teams would agree to a formula in which a fixed percentage of gross revenues would be earmarked for player salaries. They would establish a league-wide minimum salary. With teams protected by set salary limits, the league could safely move toward a free-agency system. Money saved from ending expensive lawsuits, combined with more aggressively negotiated TV deals, could eventually allow average salaries to more than double.

Sounds good, but skeptics in the league and elsewhere wonder where all those big TV bucks will come from. In recent months, top executives at the three big networks have warned that they have no intention of paying anywhere near the average $910 million a year the league gets under its current TV contracts, which expire after the 1993 season. Steinberg, though, thinks that is bull. "Competition for sports programming drives up rights fees," he wrote in a recent op-ed column. "Notwithstanding the doomsday scenario that the networks recently expressed about their future, they will be at the negotiating table bidding increased dollars for the next NFL television package."

To Steinberg, doomsday will come if the owners and players battle each other until they've wounded their common profit center, the NFL. And the owners are listening, if not always agreeing with him. "I welcome his involvement," says Jerry Jones, general manager for the Dallas Cowboys--even though he remembers pulling an all-nighter with Steinberg as they hammered out details of quarterback Troy Aikman's $11 million contract in 1989. "We're all in this together, and Steinberg is capable and committed."

SYMPATHETIC EAR. Players are likely to be even more receptive to the superagent's pitch. After all, he has made many of them wealthy. And he listens to them. San Francisco 49ers backup quarterback Steve Young remembers the emotional day he broke off a longstanding engagement to his girlfriend. Steinberg rushed to his side and spent several days with Young. "He's always there when you need him," says Young.

Especially around contract time. Steinberg negotiated a record deal, worth $42 million over 33 years, for Young in 1984. Now, with Steinberg pushing for a free-agency system, more players stand to gain. Many with the most to gain will probably ask Steinberg to handle the negotiations, even if the agent nags them to give up some of their newfound wealth.

"I feel like Robin Hood," Steinberg says of using his players to promote charities. Other agents aren't so impressed. "There's nothing new to charity," sniffs longtime agent Bob Woolf. "Everyone's been doing it for years." But not every agent has the nerve to demand it from the guys who pay his bills. And not every agent is trying to cut a deal for an entire league.

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