I recently read a piece by NFL player Russell Okung for The Players’ Tribune about why he didn’t need an agent and I have to say I agree with some aspects of what he wrote.
Ultimately, I have come to see that an agent is a value add for athletes in a lot of ways. The counterpoint I would make to Okung’s argument is that the hiring and development of a great relationship with an agent might be one of the most important value adds in a athlete’s career.
When I first began my career as an agent, I obviously had seen the movie Jerry Maguire and had an idyllic version of the client-agent relationship. Who wouldn’t want that kind of unique bond and lasting relationship?
One of my first overly successful clients was at a point in his career that closely mirrored the plot of that movie – even down to my client being a lot like Rod Tidwell. The thing that I learned, though, as my career and relationship with that client progressed is that I am always held accountable to the underlying business that defines our relationship, and that’s OK.
The way I came to learn this was actually funny. My client had a daily shooting routine that consisted on him shooting different shots to a specific number of makes. He did this every day and before every game. When I was around when he worked out, I counted the makes out loud and offered encouragement – thinking a super-agent is an expert in every field that involved a client’s life and acting like a basketball Tony Robbins. I didn’t know it at the time, but this drove my client crazy. I came to know it when he stopped a workout and looked at me and said, “If you count one more make I’m going to throw this ball at you, I got this part covered.”
We had enough of a relationship that I didn’t take what he said personally, but I did understand he was serious and what he meant. I realized that it wasn’t my job to be everything in every aspect of a client’s life but to be the expert in the one area that he deemed it most necessary for him. What that one aspect is changes with each client. The value add comes in with me realizing what that area is.
The one thing I have noticed about sports is how often people outside of the athletes themselves devalue talent or take talent for granted.
If you took what is viewed as maybe the easiest skill to execute in basketball, say making a free throw, and asked 100 people to perform this task in a full arena in front of 19,000 screaming people, I promise you less than five people would make the free throw. In baseball, nine out of 10 people throw out the first pitch into the third row or look like they are throwing it with the wrong hand. Athletes in a given sport get this and understand how hard their jobs are or how talented a given person is.
You will not find a single NBA player who will ever say anything negative thing about LeBron James as a basketball player. They know how good he is. If you ever ask a player what’s his opinion about LeBron, they answer as if LeBron is standing right behind then. It’s a true respect.
A lot of times, an agent is an advocate for a client’s talent and what makes that player unique.
Russell Okung and other players of that caliber are so talented that they are on a different level, but it has been my experience that there’s a point where the dynamic and leverage changes and the job of marketing players or keeping them employed becomes harder than simply answering a phone. When that time comes, athletes will know why they have paid the money to maintain a relationship built over years that is a true bond.
An athlete’s career might be defined by something as simple as five decisions based on conversations. Some of those conversations might be one-minute long, but the outcome of some of those decisions literally define the rest of an athlete’s and his family’s life in a lot of ways. When those conversations come up, any athlete who has ever employed a good or bad agent knows the role and effect an agent played.
Upon reading Okun’s piece, what I see is an extremely smart and observant human being who has put a lot of thought into his decision. I think his perspective is a fair and accurate one for this point of his career and life. I just want to see how it works out for him.
Bernie Lee is an NBA agent. He can be reached at 416-820-2219. His website is www.leebasket.com.