Leigh Steinberg is known and credited as the model behind the movie that thrust a sports agent’s role into the American consciousness. Tom Cruise’s performance in Jerry Maguire was inspired by the agent, whose career has spanned over 35 years with over 150 clients represented. From before agents were even vital to the industry to when sports and his profession became enamored with glamor and money, Steinberg has exemplified what sports agentry has ascended to in American sports.
“The 70, ’80s, ’90s and early 2000’s, his name was synonymous with the agent representation business,” said Ryan Matha, an ex-NFL player and recently hired agent for Steinberg Sports Entertainment.
Now, Steinberg is entering his second round as a sports agent after a recent exit in the field, and he’s doing so while promoting his new book, The Agent: My 40-year career making deals and changing the game. On a book tour that will travel around the nation, Steinberg will speak and sign books at the University of Oregon’s School of Law at 5 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 17.
The Agent profiles the rise, fall and redemption path that he led during his eminent career. From the time he was the student body president at UC Berkeley, to when he was rated the sixth-most influential person in the NFL (he’s represented seven Hall of Famers and 60 first-round draft picks), to when his personal struggles led to a downfall with alcohol addiction, Steinberg guides the reader on a journey throughout his pioneer-type trail.
“I think everything I talk about is an opportunity for younger people and I want to see passionate principle people get into sports,” Steinberg, 64, said.”I like to be responsive and I had mentors in my own life and there is not much literature available in these fields to tell someone how to succeed, so hopefully it will give a good message.”
Steinberg got his start right out of law school when he was requested to represent eventual No. 1 draft pick Steve Bartkowski after the two had met while Steinberg acted as the dorm adviser to Bartkowski’s hall. It was then, when he arrived in Atlanta for the 1975 NFL Draft, that Steinberg realized the veneration that athletes are held in.
“We get into Atlanta and there are cleat lights flashing in the sky like for a movie premiere,” Steinberg said. “And the first thing we heard was, ‘We interrupt the Johnny Carson show to bring a special news bulletin. Steve Bartkowski and his attorney just arrived at the Atlanta airport,’ so I said, ‘I guess we’re not in Berkeley anymore.’”
Decades later, Steinberg has been regarded as one of the most influential persons in sports because of his relationships and foundations built outside of just being a negotiator. Understanding the pedestal that athletes are heightened to, he has focused his efforts on his clients’ careers outside of athletics and the difference they can make in the world.
Their stature as role models he felt helped promote causes with far greater effect, such as when heavyweight boxing champion Lennox Lewis said, “Real men don’t hit women” in a public service announcement aimed towards domestic violence.
Sticking by his father’s two core values to treasure relationships and make a positive difference in the world, Steinberg has contributed to various humanitarian causes during his career. He has also been a driving force behind the attempt to better diagnose concussions and recently formed Athletes Speak, a foundation dedicated to fund research on the solution.
“He is one of those agents that people point to as someone who is incredibly honest, real and authentic,” Whitney Wagoner, senior instructor of sports business and program manager for the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center, said.
Steinberg’s memoir also includes a portion of his life that spiraled downward from 2007 to 2009. During those years Steinberg was arrested for both DUI and public intoxication, eventually checking into sober living in 2010. He would also file for bankruptcy in January 2011 and discusses it all to provide inspiration for those struggling.
“He is very, very candid about the mistakes he’s made,” Daniel Roberts, a writer for Fortune Magazine, said. “He is frank and honest about them and happy to talk about them.”
Roberts wrote a profile about the agent in April 2012 when he was just getting his footing placed as an agent again. Steinberg’s agency, Steinberg Sports Entertainment, was officially relaunched in November.
The former “super agent,” who will be four years sober next month, now tackles an industry that he helped bring to where it stands today.
“Looking at Leigh’s career and what he did is a great way to understand how the whole idea of the power of the sports agent began,” Roberts said. “A lot of people call him the father of modern agenting.”
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