I sit writing looking out the office window at the Newport Beach Bay with paddleboarders, canoers, kayakers and boaters floating by, enjoying the sun and water. But I have sat chained at this desk for the past two weeks studying for the upcoming National Football Players Association Certification Test held this Friday in Washington D.C. Dramatic changes were made in the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement with the NFL, and the NFLPA wants to insure that the agents that players entrust to handle their affairs are conversant with the rules.
To represent a player for contract negotiations in a team sport, an agent must first be certified by the sport's union. The players' union takes the position that under National Labor Relations Board Law they are the sole bargainer for "wages, terms and hours" for their members. Not only do they negotiate the Collective Bargaining Agreement that sets the rules and conditions that all players perform under, they assert the right to negotiate individual player contracts. Because of the tradition in sports and entertainment of having individual agents for the talent, the players' associations deed out that right under their administration as long as the agent is certified. Their goal is to protect players from unscrupulous agents.
Certification starts with an application that heavily scrutinizes the education and background of the applicant. The NFLPA requires an undergraduate college degree and a postgraduate degree in law or business. If someone can show seven years of practical negotiating experience, they can also qualify without postgraduate education. Any legal violations or professional discipline, especially involving dishonesty or fraud are evaluated. Being rejected by any of the associations is grounds for rejection by another. The application can be rejected at this point. There is a right of appeal.
A fee accompanies an application and is paid yearly by the agent to the union. Certain unions like the NFLPA require that the agents secure a bond to insure their behavior. The unions hold yearly seminars in which they discuss economic developments, changes in the CBA, salary and contract information, drug and steroid policies, financial planning and other relevant topics. The NFLPA requires attendance every year. The NFLPA holds one session on the West Coast, another on the East Coast, one at the Indianapolis rookie combine and occasionally qualifies attendance at the Sports Lawyers Association.
Each union has a code of conduct for agents, which regulates maximum fees, recruiting behavior, fiduciary responsibilities, conflicts of interest and the duty of the agent to actually sign the bottom of the player contract insuring that it is the whole and entire agreement. Agents who violate these rules can be brought before disciplinary committees that can levy a wide range of penalties ranging from fines to total suspension.
This is dramatically different than when I started in 1975, it was the "Wild Wild West." Anyone with a card could be an agent notwithstanding their lack of education or training. They could charge players any fee they would agree to. They could have "runners" recruiting on campus, and a series of backdoor ways to get paid by third parties. Now between the unions, state laws and campus regulators -- the field is clearly more regulated.
The unions handle fee disputes between an agent and a player or between two agents; it is all subject to binding arbitration. Agents are now required to obey the CBA and salary cap requirements. They have to submit written Standard Representation Agreements with each client, designed by the union to protect players. They have to disclose every relationship with a financial planner or other agent. They have to open their books and submit statements of fees.
Friday the newest class of aspiring football agents will be striving to pass a test and qualify to begin their representation careers. And one forty-year veteran will be required to show he still has the right stuff.
-- Leigh Steinberg has represented many of the most successful athletes and coaches in football, basketball, baseball, hockey, boxing and golf, including the first overall pick in the NFL draft an unprecedented eight times, among more than 60 first-round selections. His clients have included Hall of Fame quarterbacks Steve Young, Troy Aikman and Warren Moon, and he served as the inspiration for the movie "Jerry Maguire." Follow him on Twitter @SteinbergSports.