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Good agents do a lot more than negotiate contracts

Seahawks left tackle Russell Okung has made the personal decision not to use an agent for his next contract negotiation. His first-person article for Derek Jeter’s website at one point seems to suggest that this may not be the right decision for every player, but seems to end with a call to all players to do what Okung has done.

Before any player considering the possibility of “betting on himself” makes the inherently personal decision on whether an agent is needed, the player needs to consider everything an agent does. Otherwise, that bet on himself is nothing more than a blind roll of the dice.

It’s easy to say that an agent simply pushes paper and haggles for a few minutes and then collect three percent of the player’s pay for the life of the deal. It’s even easier to say that agents for draft picks don’t do anything because the rookie wage scale determines what each draft pick makes.

But agents do a lot more than that. During the course of 15 years in the business, I’ve seen plenty of examples, good and bad, of things that agents do.

And there indeed are good and bad agents, just like there are good and bad lawyers, doctors, auto mechanics, writers, reporters, cooks, floor sweepers, and football players. (As the late George Carlin used to say, someone is the worst doctor in America -- and someone else has an appointment to see him tomorrow.) The NFL Players Association regulates all agents, but beyond the pass-fail of certification it becomes very difficult to determine who is and isn’t good at the job.

The good agents do plenty of good things for their clients beyond negotiating contracts. Here’s a list that isn’t intended to be exhaustive, but that shows how exhausting the job can be, when done right.

1. Good agents develop relationships with General Managers and other team personnel, which often extend beyond the duration of any one player’s career. Those relationships benefit clients in various ways, tangible and intangible. For example, one player was late for a couple of meetings and the team was going to void his guaranteed money. The agent had a good relationship with the G.M., and the agent managed to talk the G.M. out of taking a hard line with the player.

2. Good agents get players out of a wide variety of personal problems that never become public, pulling the plug on off-field situations before they impact the players’ careers -- often without the team ever knowing about it. From late-night phone calls following bar fights to panicked pleas from players stuck at an airport without the ability to get to camp on time, good agents mobilize on a moment’s notice to fix things, at no extra charge beyond what they make for negotiating the contract.

3. Good agents often serve as the buffer between the player and family members/friends who constantly have their hands out, serving as the bad cops who say “no” without forcing the players to do so.

4. Good agents often serve as part-time therapists, helping players work through relationship and/or family problems. Sometimes, good agents work directly with players’ wives or girlfriends to get potentially bad situations under control before they become problematic for the players’ employment.

5. Good agents help players get cars, houses, insurance, loans, etc. on favorable terms, sometimes negotiating deals directly on behalf of the players. (That said, unscrupulous agents sometimes steer players toward providers of cars, houses, insurance, loans, etc. who overcharge the players and kick back a piece of the action to the unscrupulous agents.)

6. Good agents have relationships in the media that can be used to persuade reporters to properly balance potentially negative stories about players, or to generate positive publicity for players when they do something that merits praise. Good agents also pester (sometimes aggressively) members of the media regarding the accomplishments of their players -- whether to improve draft position, to secure consideration for postseason awards, or to create buzz in advance of free agency.

7. Good agents get directly involved in the appeals of fines and suspensions, supplementing the efforts of the NFLPA. Sometimes, good agents push back against the NFLPA, which may have less desire to fight on a given player’s behalf than his agent does.

8. Good agents sometimes protect players from themselves in negotiations. Some players want to pounce on the first or second offer made. Good agents encourage patience, ensuring that teams won’t take advantage of players who fear losing the proverbial bird in the hand -- or who lack the patience to push for the two in the bush.

9. Good agents work through dynamics like new-money analysis to help get the players what they want while allowing the teams to feel like they got a good deal. Good agents also ensure that players have early triggers in the out years of contracts, forcing the team to make a decision on whether to keep the player while money and jobs are available elsewhere. With most players only getting a handful or fewer of contracts over the course of a career, few players ever will be able to understand these nuances and in turn to say the right things at the right time to get the most money and/or greatest degree of protection in a way that the team finds acceptable.

10. While it’s easy to negotiate contracts once a player is drafted, good agents ensure that players are drafted where they should be drafted, and maybe even a little higher. From helping prepare them for meetings with teams to ensuring that they know when to stop smoking marijuana before drug testing to lining up (and funding) the best possible pre-Combine training methods, good agents make their fee on rookie contracts not after the draft, but before it.

11. Good agents protect players from potentially unnecessary surgeries. On many occasions, good agents have pushed back against a team’s belief that a player needs surgery, have invoked the player’s right to a second opinion, and ultimately have helped the player avoid a procedure that may not have been in the player’s best short-term and long-term interests.

12. Ultimately, good agents take care of a wide variety of issues and headaches that, individually or together, distract players from what they are being paid to do.

Again, these are the things good agents do. For many players, it’s better to have no agent than to have a bad one. But for most players, it’s likewise better to have a good agent than none at all.

For every player, it’s a decision that can be made only when considering all factors. Saving three cents on the dollar is just one of the many factors to consider -- especially if saving three cents on the dollar results in the player getting 100 cents of a lot fewer dollars.