From an agent's seat, dim view of new breed

December 11, 2003|By MIKE PRESTON

LOCAL SPORTS AGENT Tony Agnone has watched the numbers in his field increase significantly during the past three decades. In that time, some of his peers have gone to jail for ripping off millions of dollars or been suspended for illegal practices.

The new-breed athlete disturbs him, but so does the new-breed agent.

In a profession that involves high-maintenance personalities, Agnone has survived and been successful because of a low-key approach.

He has never had the extravagant lifestyle of Leigh Steinberg or the flamboyance of "Too Live" Drew Rosenhaus. But during the past 26 years, Eastern Athletic Services has ranked in the top 10 in the NFL in player representation.

Yet as one of the profession's pioneers, Agnone, 50, doesn't like where the business is headed. Back in the mid-1970s, players recruited agents. Agents now recruit players in what is a meat market.

In the '90s, it was standard for agents to offer college players upfront money and maybe a car to sign, but the offers now include such things as health insurance, marketing campaigns, clothing and personal trainers.

The kids love the deals. And if they can't get something from one agent, they can get it from another, which is why players change agents like the Washington Redskins change coaches.

"The veteran players still recruit agents, but there are a lot of enablers out there, the agents who just chase the young kids around," said Agnone, a native of South River, N.J., who lives in Hunt Valley.

"These are the people who keep telling them yes rather than no. It's very hard to get young kids to understand that their careers are not going to be like people tell them. It's going to be an up-and-down kind of thing. No career goes straight up. There are always going to be peaks and valleys.

"It's not about workout programs. It's not about the perks. It's not how many car deals you can get or Chunky Soup commercials, it's about learning how to be prepared for the future. There are a lot of kids unprepared and a lot of agents who have no business being in this business."

Just look at some of the horror stories. A couple in Pittsburgh masquerading as sports agents once milked $314,000 from two Pittsburgh Steelers, one of them former All-Pro center Dermontti Dawson. It was a sports agent behind the infamous shopping spree of Florida State football players in the early 1990s.

In May 2002, sports agent William "Tank" Black was sentenced to five years in federal prison for swindling up to $12 million from professional players he represented, including $3.1 million of the $5 million signing bonus received by Jacksonville running back Fred Taylor.

Agents are like rabbits. They just keep multiplying. They have worse reputations than boxing promoter Don King.

"Agents should have a bad reputation," said Agnone, a 1975 graduate of Mount St. Mary's in Emmitsburg. "Half of the guys in the business are in it for the money and the glory. They're in for the publicity.

"But we're supposed to be the caretakers and the safeguards. We're too busy patting ourselves on the back for how much money we're bamboozling out of teams."

Agnone was one of the few agents on the ground floor when the business started taking off. As an assistant dean at the University of Baltimore Law School, he worked with representatives sent from the NFL Players Association to obtain their law degrees, including Kansas City guard Tom Condon.

Agnone eventually became the agent for several of them, and eventually led to his signing several Baltimore Colts, including Wade Griffin, Ken Huff and Bob Van Duyne.

Back then, there were only about 50 agents. Now there are 1,800 or so, and only 1,200 players.

"I thought I was going to work for the Health, Education and Welfare Department," said Agnone. "Now I feel like Peter Angelos. I don't think he had any idea he was going to get into the sports business, either.

"Before I knew it, I had quite a few clients. I ended up taking a leave of absence at UB, and it's been more than 20 years and I'm still on that leave of absence.

"At that time, there were so few agents that had an expertise that players sought you out."

Now, there are major corporations in the field. Agnone has stayed in the medium-size range, and prides himself on being able to provide individual attention. His list of players includes such names as Michael Strahan, Chad Bratzke, Sean Landeta, Jamie Sharper and Casey Rabach.

In some ways, Agnone has tried to model himself after Ron Shapiro, who represented Cal Ripken and Eddie Murray, by becoming involved in the community.

Agnone has worked extensively with the Ed Block Courage Awards group, is the president of the President's Council at Mount St. Mary's and helps Ray Sydnor run the Mentors and Academic Program in Baltimore.

He represents most of the city's television personalities, including Keith Mills, Marty Bass, Gerry Sandusky, Scott Garceau, Norm Lewis and former Colts turned radio personalities Tom Matte and Bruce Laird.

His style has never changed. Agnone usually works in the background. He has a quick wit and a good sense of humor and knows just about everybody there is to know in Baltimore.

"I've always admired Ron Shapiro," said Agnone. "He always got himself and his players involved, and I always thought that was a great thing to continue. You don't always need to put your name out in the spotlight, but when a person needs help, you need to provide. I've tried to approach this business the same way. You can't just take any player, but players who want to make informed decisions.

"College kids want to start at the top," he added. "But in real life, they don't make you a CEO quickly. You've got to pay your dues. We live in the instant-gratification generation. They aren't slackers; they do work hard. But they just need some direction, and we need to give it to them."

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