Agents Who Play As Rough As Linebackers

The controversial Poston brothers are rewriting the rules on NFL salaries

In his suburban Detroit home, sports agent Kevin D. Poston displays a gallery of family photos dating back to the days when his ancestors were slaves. One of his favorites is a picture of his great-grandfather Zachary Taylor Winston, who was born into slavery and rose to become a businessman and property owner. "He couldn't write," Poston says. "He signed his name with an X."

These days, Kevin and his brother Carl C. Poston III get their star-athlete clients to sign next to the X -- and in the process score some of the richest contracts ever seen in professional football. The brothers are partners in Professional Sports Planning Inc. (PSP), which negotiates deals for more than 40 players, mostly National Football League stars. Their clients include Kellen Winslow Jr. of the Cleveland Browns, Charles Woodson of the Oakland Raiders, and Charles Rogers of the Detroit Lions.

SWEET PACKAGES

Few sports agents make life as expensive -- or as uncomfortable -- for the NFL as the Postons do. To get their way, the Postons play rougher than a blitzing linebacker. They want nothing less than to tear down the NFL's feudal salary system. The brash brothers typically represent linemen, defensive backs, and other players who traditionally have earned far less than star quarterbacks. When quarterback Peyton Manning (not their client) of the Indianapolis Colts nabbed a seven-year $98 million contract this year, with a smashing $34.5 million signing bonus, the Postons started making noise about getting "fair market value" for less visible players.

Sometimes they don't do too badly. This season, for example, PSP negotiated a six-year $40 million deal, including a $16.5 million signing bonus, for tight end Winslow, the No. 6 pick in the NFL draft. That's a sweeter package than three of the players drafted before Winslow were able to land. But their tactics also can backfire: According to the NFL Players Assn., they recently got dropped by a key client, tackle Orlando Pace. This was the second year running that the Postons failed to negotiate a long-term deal for Pace. The brothers -- who as BusinessWeek went to press said Pace hadn't yet told them he was leaving -- are said to have demanded $71 million from his team, the St. Louis Rams, leading to a standoff. They also failed to negotiate record contracts for two other marquee players, the Raiders' Woodson and San Francisco 49ers linebacker Julian Peterson. When those teams balked at the Poston proposals, the brothers held the players back from preseason training camps. The Postons won't say how much they were demanding, but NFL insiders say they asked for "Manning money."

Hogwash, says Kevin, 45, who works from his home in Farmington Hills, Mich., outside Detroit, a time zone away from Carl's office in Houston. "I never said: 'Give me Peyton Manning money.' I did say Julian was the quarterback of that defense," he says. In the end, the agents failed to reach midfield with Woodson and Peterson. They eventually slinked back to work, just in time for the season to start, after being saddled with "franchise tag" status. As such, they'll be paid the average salary of the top five at their position. It's not a bad consolation prize -- $8.8 million for a year's work, in Woodson's case -- but the Postons are still trying to negotiate long-term contracts.

TOO CONFRONTATIONAL?

The acrimonious summer fed the growing perception in the NFL that the Postons consider no salary demand too stratospheric. "Their style is almost a take-no-prisoners approach," says Kenneth L. Shropshire, director of the Wharton School's Sports Business Initiative. Shropshire, an adviser to the family of Poston client Winslow, thinks that can work to a client's advantage. But other agents accuse the Postons of being needlessly confrontational. And NFL execs -- many of whom declined to talk about the Postons -- now avoid players represented by the controversial agents, insiders say. Many believe that "Poston fatigue" was a factor in the Washington Redskins' decision to pass on Winslow. The team won't comment.

The Postons can shrug off the criticism. Their firm usually takes a 3% share of each deal its players sign, earning them millions in fees. They've come a long way, especially since they got into the business serendipitously. Carl was practicing law in Houston in 1989 when a friend referred a Houston Oilers football player who had a tax problem. At about the same time, Kevin, also a lawyer, was working on financing for a new basketball arena outside Detroit. They decided to try their hands as agents, printed up a brochure, and began a tour of NFL tryouts, college stadiums, and the living rooms of prospects such as defensive back Terrell Buckley, their first star client.

The brothers never doubted their competence, having acquired a sense of confidence as children in Saginaw, Mich. Unlike many of their friends, the Postons grew up valuing education and business ownership. Their father, Carl Poston Jr., now 81, was a lawyer and one of the first blacks on the Saginaw City Council. His wife, Thelma, 74, was the first black to earn a real estate license in the Saginaw area, say Kevin and Carl.

For the most part, the Postons inspire intense loyalty among clients. Pace apparently got restless. But others look to them as older brothers and seek their advice about everything from girlfriends to cars. Carl's cell phone rings nonstop with calls from players checking in. "You're getting a haircut? Nice life," chides Carl when Woodson calls. A few minutes later he is joking with defensive back Ty Law. "I can talk to Carl and Kevin about issues in my life," Law says. "They're like my family."

Still, controversy dogs the Postons with each new deal. Redskins star linebacker LaVar Arrington, another client, is ensnared in an arbitration over whether the team negotiated one contract and then -- unbeknownst to Carl, he says -- slipped Arrington another to sign, minus a $6.5 million bonus. "If the agent admits he didn't read the contract, that's worrisome," says one player rep who asked not to be named. Carl says he's confident that Arrington will prevail in the arbitration. Arrington stands by the Postons.

Then there's the race question: All of the Postons' clients are African American, leading some Poston-bashers to speculate that PSP prefers to represent only blacks. Such talk mostly amuses the Postons. "We'd love to represent [white stars] Peyton Manning and Zach Thomas," says Carl, 49. "We don't get the time of day from white players and their families."

Even so, the Poston empire continues to expand. This year PSP added two first-round draft picks: Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Reggie Williams and Chris Gamble of the Carolina Panthers. In a field where success is measured in greenbacks, it seems no amount of controversy will stop these brothers from reaching the end zone.

By Mark Hyman in Houston

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