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Victory in Court Exacts a Price From Steinberg

November 16, 2002|Sam Farmer

Show him the money!

A Los Angeles jury awarded NFL super-agent Leigh Steinberg $44.6 million in damages Friday after ruling that his former business partner, David Dunn, conspired to heist his high-profile clients.

Steinberg, for years viewed as an idealist who brought a human touch to an otherwise soulless industry, now has a courtroom victory -- and a shredded reputation.

There was a time Steinberg was the most powerful agent in football. Almost every quarterback of consequence was a client, among them Troy Aikman, Warren Moon, Steve Young and Drew Bledsoe. ESPN would set up shop in his offices on draft day, and invariably he'd be there entertaining the top college prospect and the player's family. He had Aikman endow a scholarship at UCLA and Young do the same at Brigham Young. He was all about the people. He cared.

That was his image, one he had cultivated since his days as student-body president at Cal, when he set out to reshape one small corner of the sports world. In the aftermath of a remarkably messy trial, it's hard to tell what's sincere and what's a sham.

Is Steinberg the man who put character above everything or the binge drinker who took credit for the achievements of everyone around him? Is he the consummate protector who fought to educate the football world about concussions or the bumbler who once fell down drunk in a hotel lobby and told a male employee: "I want to eat your leg"?

Is he neither? Or both?

"Did I have a drinking problem? Yeah, I did, and I conquered it," Steinberg said. "But so did George Bush, and he's running the country."

The empire Steinberg now runs is significantly smaller than it once was. He has 26 players, down from a high of 90. He still has some household names -- Ricky Williams, Edgerrin James, Kordell Stewart, Mark Brunell -- but he may never have a Sunday like the one a few years ago, when 14 of the quarterbacks playing that afternoon were his clients. He no longer scares the competition.

"Would I worry about going up against him for a player? Never," one agent said. "There was a time I would."

When Steinberg talks about his post-verdict future, he talks about a smaller, more manageable business. Ninety clients is too many, he says now, a much better size is 40 or 45. He speaks of getting back to his roots, back to his days fresh out of Berkeley.

"There's an aspect of this that's fun and challenging and invigorating," he said.

His longtime business partner, Jeff Moorad, says the same thing.

"Our commitment to serve our athletes is as strong as it's ever been," Moorad said.

For Steinberg, the challenge is hanging onto the clients he has and rehabilitating his image enough to attract more. He was in Miami on Friday, helping Dolphin running back Williams with his charity.

"I've never claimed to be a perfect human being, nor do I think anyone else is who represents athletes," Steinberg said. "But when it comes to the representation of athletes, for 27 years our clients have gotten the absolute best."

There's no denying Steinberg's image is seriously wounded. And he probably won't see that mountain of cash. Most of the money will go to Assante Corp., parent company of Steinberg & Moorad Sports Management. What the verdict does, more than anything, is send the message that a renegade employee can't destabilize an agency by walking away with all the cornerstone clients.

Even though Steinberg won Friday, the trial represents a devastating loss. Or, in the words of fellow NFL agent James Gould: "If you believe what you're fighting for is worth it, sometimes you've got to get naked in front of the world. Welcome to your $44 million."

Spinning His Wheels

Marcellus Wiley, a Pro Bowl defensive end for the San Diego Chargers, has made some big plays this season -- including stripping the ball from Marshall Faulk last Sunday when the St. Louis running back was about to score -- but he's stuck on four sacks. Wiley, who attended St. Monica High, reached double digits in sacks the last two seasons. He's coming off a groin injury that kept him out of three games. Still, it frustrates him that sacks are only trickling in.

"You kind of rev your engine up and you're staying in park," he said. "You feel like you went zero to 60, but all you did was rev the RPM up and make a lot of noise."

Thinking Inside the Box

Could the Arena Football League wind up, say, replacing NFL Europe? It isn't a bad idea, considering the indoor game doesn't need as large a crowd to pack a house, and the up-tempo version might be more appealing to fans who didn't grow up watching the NFL.

"If 15,000 people show up at an NFL game, it's an embarrassment," AFL Commissioner David Baker said. "If 15,000 people come to an arena game, it's a party."

Baker and Casey Wasserman, owner of the L.A. Avengers, as well as other AFL executives, stopped by The Times for lunch Friday with a group of editors and writers.

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