[11 October 2011]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
I think it’s possible for someone who’s really established to succeed without cheating, but it’s really difficult.
“He has to have the right agent or it’s not going to work,” says Blanche Reed of her son Robert Hughes, a running back at the University of Notre Dame. The agent in her living room agrees. Eugene Lee assures her that he works hard for the “guys that I believe in. They’re like little brothers to me.” Eugene turns to Robert: “You are the top priority for us.”
Here The Dotted Line cuts to Eugene in another NFL hopeful’s home. Juacquian Williams, “the most athletic linebacker in the 2011 draft,” according to Eugene, listens intently as the agent speaks: “You’re our highest priority.” Yes, Eugene has a line, a familiar sort of energy and focus. “We offer our clients access to the best training facility,” he explains. “We will prepare a pre-draft client website, JuacquianWilliams.com.” Eugene’s company, ETL Associates, also finances training before the draft, with hopes of readying clients for the NFL Combine, a cost that regularly runs eight or nine thousand dollars. If a client is drafted or even if he’s signed to a contract as an undrafted free agent, the agent can earn as much as 3% of the contract amount. In some cases, this amount is substantial. More often, a client is not picked up or something goes wrong—an injury or an unforeseen trouble comes up—and the agent is left looking again for the Next Big Thing.
As represented in The Dotted Line, the life of a sports agent is hectic, unpredictable, and sometimes high stakes. It can also be a grind. When Eugene Lee first appears in Morgan Spurlock’s documentary—which premieres on ESPN on 11 October—he’s sliding into his car, sugar-free Red Bull at the ready. It’s a “pre-game ritual,” he jokes. And so the film goes on to show how ritualistic his various encounters can be, in montages of handshakes and phone calls, scene after scene where he’s insisting on the value his client brings to the Bears or the Seahawks or the New York Football Giants. “Do you have a need?” he asks one recruiter at the 2010 Combine (to which none of Eugene’s clients have been invited, but even still, he brings along postcards and invites teams to look at website clips). “We’re looking for playmakers, basically,” comes the answer. Isn’t everyone?
Sometimes Eugene’s line works. More often, other lines by other agents override his. At this point, early in his career, Eugene might aspire to be Drew Rosenhaus, peter Greenberg or David Falk, and The Dotted Line suggests why anyone would—specifically, in interviews with Falk. Famously smart and effective, Falk retells the story of his relationship with Michael Jordan, his decision to “work for” the client as opposed to the company (ProServ, in 1984), and the brilliant first contract with Nike (including a clause guaranteeing Nike would spend $1 million to promote the Air Jordan during its first year). Jordan went on to become the very model of the superstar-athlete-as-brand (no matter the increasingly lame Hanes ads).
Falk left ProServ in 1992 to start his own agency, the plainly named FAME. Spurlock narrates that the Jordan-Falk legend is admirable, that its “solid foundation is built upon trust and shrewd business moves,” and that it “redefined what having the right agent can do for your career both on and off the court.” Jeremy Schaap adds that Jordan’s status as “a superhero and a brand that’s almost as universal as Coca Cola… wouldn’t have happened without David Falk.” The film doesn’t draw specific connections between this seismic shift in commercial culture and what follows—the changing relationship of players to the sports industry—but the dots are visible in the story of Josh Luchs.
On one level, Luchs is a cautionary tale, a notorious example of what not to do as a sports agent. On another level, he’s the system incarnate, though a particular version of it who happened to be caught out. His Confessionss of an agent” appeared in Sports Illustrated in 2010, revealing not only that he paid college players to sign with him, but also that the practice is widespread, essentially how business is done. The Dotted Line illustrates, sometimes precisely, other times metaphorically. Luchs describes a system of “reciprocation,” by which players, who are not allowed to earn money during their college careers, take money and promise to engage in legal relationships with agents later.
To make his point that what he did not abnormal, Luchs brings the camera crew along as he drives his S550 Mercedes in the back gate at UCLA’s training facility, where he conducted most of his business during the early 2000s. When he asks, “Anybody walking over asking me what the hell I’m doing here on UCLA’s campus?” the camera shows there’s not a soul in sight. “It’s ridiculous,” Luchs concludes. “Anybody want to fix the problem? Or does everybody pretend they want to fix the problem?”
Pretending hasn’t quite worked out. But actual fixing will involve changing more than the NCAA, as The Dotted Line makes clear. The NCAA has its own interests and limits when it comes to monitoring such deals. A flow chart shows the supposed process of investigations and hearings while Schaap notes, “The NCAA is just the sum of the efforts and the finances dedicated to it by its member institutions. And they choose as a group not to give the NCAA the resources to do the job they are charged with doing.” As the money generated by TV and merchandise contracts escalates, these institutions make enforcement “selective,” according to Sports Business Journal‘s Liz Mullen. A graphic shows just how selective the enforcers must be, given that the ratio of investigators to student athletes is 1: 11,429.
Michael Jordan’s successful brand sets a high bar for athletes ever after, and some take this as a primary goal (see: LeBron James). As The Dotted Line makes clear, the process to becoming a brand—on and off the field of play—is increasingly complicated. And agents’ roles in that are not simply corrupt: as Schaap suggests, the athletes are dealing with forces arrayed to exploit them, which makes the agents “a necessary counterweight to the owners, with all of their lawyers and all of their advisors.” Again and again, young athletes insist that sports and sports stardom comprise a “dream,” a means to social mobility, a way to be known. What they inevitably come to see is how that dream is also a negotiation.