Superagent Leigh Steinberg: Pro Football's Real Wild Man

A nasty trial has tarnished his Jerry Maguire image. Can he still do the deals?

In the ego-driven, Arli$$ world of sports agents, Leigh Steinberg seemed above the fray. He did record-breaking deals for the NFL players who flocked to his firm. But he also taught clients good citizenship, coaxing many to form charitable foundations and share their millions. Steinberg was even the model for the good-guy agent in the 1996 movie Jerry Maguire. And his best-seller on doing deals, Winning with Integrity, trumpeted core values.

Winning with a Hangover might be more like it if you believe the testimony of former Steinberg associates about lubricated life with Leigh. In a six-week trial that concluded on Nov. 8 in a Los Angeles federal court, Steinberg's pristine reputation was thrown for a loss so huge that some wonder if he'll ever recover. "The image of Leigh Steinberg before and Leigh Steinberg after [the lawsuit] are totally different," says agent Lynn Lashbrook, president of Sports-Management.com in Portland, Ore.

Until recently, mere speculation that Steinberg, 53, could fade from the scene would have been as believable as a four-point field goal. The freewheeling Newport Beach (Calif.) agent, who famously wore flip-flops to close million-dollar deals, was among the most trusted brands in the industry.

That was before the bruising $40 million lawsuit against former partner David Dunn. Last February, Dunn bolted from Steinberg's SMD Inc. to launch a competing firm, Athletes First--and took some 50 NFL players with him. In doing so, he decimated the firm that dominated pro football for 20 years.

Starting with one player in the mid-1970s, the 26-year-old Steinberg, fresh out of law school, began forging a powerhouse agency. As his reputation grew, so did the contracts he negotiated--a $49.2 million, six-year deal for San Francisco 49ers quarterback Steve Young in 1998 and, the following year, a record $11.25 million signing bonus from the San Diego Chargers for QB Ryan Leaf, a hot prospect who fizzled fast.

Steinberg took in agent Jeff Moorad in 1985, expanding the firm's reach into baseball. In 1999, nine years after joining Steinberg and Moorad, Dunn had his name stenciled on the door, too. Competition from mega-agencies such as Mark McCormack's International Management Group was intensifying, but later in 1999, Steinberg scored a touchdown when Canada's Assante Corp. bought SMD for $74 million. In court documents, Dunn stated that he left the firm early in 2001 because Assante reneged on a promise to pay him $2.5 million in stock and because of Steinberg's increasingly destructive antics. At the trial, an Assante lawyer testified that Dunn's stock agreement had not been completed when he left.

Other former Steinberg associates also charged that behind the clean-living facade, the superagent was a sloppy drinker who seldom serviced clients and whose erratic behavior embarrassed them. Buffalo Bills quarterback Drew Bledsoe, who broke with Steinberg last year, testified that his agent showed up at his 1996 wedding "acting as if he was very inebriated....I had to answer questions from family and friends [wondering], `Who is that guy?"'

Steinberg's former aides offered similar horror stories. One recalled Steinberg twice licking the faces of women at social events. Leaving another party, the employee said, a blitzed Steinberg, the divorcing father of three, told him: "I want to eat your leg."

Steinberg's friends concede that his drinking became excessive. "He's had a problem in social settings," says Warren Moon, one of a dozen star quarterbacks that Steinberg has represented. Moon, who now works for Steinberg's firm, says his friend has been in rehab and has "taken care" of his drinking problem. In any case, Steinberg's allies contend, his frailties pale in comparison with the transgressions of Dunn & Co.: wooing dozens of Steinberg's clients, then dishing dirt to justify their treachery (table).

Whatever the outcome of the trial--the case was in the hands of the jury at press time--the split with Dunn has left Steinberg with fewer than 35 players, and new clients have been slow to sign. Three years ago, his firm landed eight first-round draft picks; this season, just one.

Still, few in the agent world are willing to bet against a Steinberg comeback. "Competitors will throw dirt," says Kenneth L. Shropshire, co-author of The Business of Sports Agents. "But for players and families, choosing an agent often comes down to: Can he still do deals? Leigh has done deals." Besides, in the blood-and-guts NFL, being known as a party animal is not the worst thing that could happen to a sports agent.

By Mark Hyman

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