The NFL's offseason has been filled with controversies over players' contracts, and some of the sport's top officials say they blame the players' agents.
Now the leaders of the NFL Players Association say they are prepared to do something about it, perhaps with tougher screening methods for prospective agents, more persistence in getting agents to take advantage of the union's resources and possible punishments for those agents involved in this offseason's confusion.
Union chief Gene Upshaw said he believes that the agents in the high-profile disputes involving Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens, Washington Redskins linebacker LaVar Arrington and Cleveland Browns wide receiver Dennis Northcutt made mistakes. Upshaw said he expects some or all of those cases to be examined closely by the union's agent disciplinary committee and sanctions possibly imposed.
"I'm hoping there's not a trend going on, but we have seen an awful lot of mistakes," Upshaw said. "I am concerned because every time a mistake is made, the player is the one left holding the bag. . . . We have a discipline committee, and they will look at this. There will be some cases they take action on, no doubt about that. I usually don't get involved in that process, but I've been more involved than usual because so many players are losing so much money."
Buffalo Bills cornerback Troy Vincent, the new president of the Players Association and the head of the agent disciplinary committee, said the Owens, Arrington and Northcutt cases are "a major concern" to the union.
"We are cracking down on those agents who are not living up to our standards," Vincent said. "Most agents do a very good job. But we've had some major mistakes with contract language — not so much with the dollars and cents and negotiating a good deal, but with the language."
David Joseph represents Owens, who was traded to the Eagles last month as part of a settlement that resolved a dispute arising from the failure of Joseph and Owens to meet a February deadline to file the paperwork necessary to void the remainder of Owens's contract with the San Francisco 49ers and make him an unrestricted free agent. Agent Jerome Stanley and Northcutt missed a similar deadline, and Northcutt remains at odds with the Browns. Arrington has filed a grievance against the Redskins alleging there is $6.5 million missing from the contract extension that he and his agent, Carl Poston, negotiated with the team in December.
The union oversees the certification and discipline of agents, but concern also is being voiced from other corners of the league.
"The agents are a concern because these kinds of mistakes cause controversy, dissent, friction and bad feelings between the player and the club and the league," said Harold Henderson, the NFL's executive vice president of labor relations. "It's friction that you don't need in a negotiation-based system. The rules should be applied clearly, and some of these people don't know some of the rules. . . . Because it affects their future business, they [agents] never will admit a mistake. They fight everything. They'll lay the blame with someone else and they'll cause lawyers to over-reach just to get out of it.
"I'd like to see it policed more carefully."
Henderson said there are too many certified agents, and the best in the field have too many clients while others have few clients and almost no experience. Vincent said the union needs to "create a better screening process" and work harder to educate the agents that it does certify. Players also must do their part, Upshaw said, by picking good agents and firing those who make costly mistakes.
"The most amazing thing is the loyalty you see on the players' part," Upshaw said. "You try to tell them, and they say they trust the guy. It's like the old saying, 'You can't tell a guy his wife is ugly.' And, in some of these cases, she's fat, too. But they don't want to hear it."
Said veteran NFL agent Peter Schaffer: "In some of these cases, you're talking about the difference between [a player] having financial security for life and not. Mistakes are made in every walk of life. But, to me, missing a deadline or not reading a contract is inexcusable, bordering on malpractice. I don't know if it should be up to the union to fix it. Yes, the union is in charge of licensing and monitoring agents. But a player should make sure that the person representing him is not just competent, but highly skilled and able to keep up with the changes in the business."
The union's agent disciplinary committee is a five-member panel of current and former players consisting of Vincent, Trace Armstrong, Robert Porcher, Robert Smith and Larry Izzo. The committee can issue a complaint against an agent, who then is given a chance to respond before the committee decides on possible disciplinary action ranging from a reprimand to a fine to a suspension to lifetime decertification. An agent can appeal any disciplinary action to arbitrator Roger Kaplan, and normally is allowed to continue to represent players during the appeal. Cases generally take six months or more to be resolved.
Richard Berthelsen, the union's general counsel who serves as counsel to the committee, declined to comment on the status of any particular case before the group, but said: "Given the lessons we've learned this offseason, the [agents'] emphasis needs to be on contract language as much as dollars and cents."
Joseph denied any wrongdoing in the Owens case, and said of possible disciplinary action: "They well may try to go after me. I can't control what they do. If they do, it would be unfortunate. I don't want to get into a screaming match with the union. They were very supportive in this. Whatever course of action they choose, that's their decision. At this point, in my mind, they did a good job. We feel we were vindicated."
Upshaw, asked whether Joseph had been exonerated by the outcome of the Owens dispute, said: "It was fortunate for Owens that we were able to find another reason to resist what happened. It was right there in the contract he [Joseph] negotiated, and he didn't realize it. In a sense he was exonerated, but it wasn't anything he did."
The deadline originally set in Owens's contract to void the remainder of the deal was moved up by a 2001 agreement between the league and the union, and Joseph has said he was unaware of the change. Union officials have said they notified Joseph by fax, but Joseph said he never received any such fax. The NFL Management Council ruled that Owens remained under contract to the 49ers, who traded him to the Baltimore Ravens. But the Players Association brought a case before NFL special master Stephen B. Burbank claiming that Owens should be a free agent, and Burbank appeared ready to declare Owens a free agent before the settlement that put Owens where he wanted to be, in Philadelphia.
He signed a seven-year contract with the Eagles reportedly worth just under $49 million, but might have received even more lucrative offers on the open market. The union's case before Burbank focused on the intent of revising the deadline that had been changed by the 2001 agreement. Yet the league and union had been operating with the new deadline for several years and no player had ever missed it.
But Joseph said: "We didn't settle this. The NFL did. There is a real misnomer out there that we messed up on this. We allowed [Burbank] to delay his ruling, but the NFL did capitulate. We had a pretty good feeling that the arbitrator was going to rule our way. . . . People are saying I screwed up. But we were so careful. We went beyond the call of duty. We were confident we had done the right thing. This was not, 'Stash a contract in a file and forget to pull it out.' The only thing anyone would say is that I didn't get a fax [from the union]. Maybe they did send it, but I never got it. . . . All the people who know me say, 'You didn't make a mistake.'"
But Henderson, also the head of the Management Council, said there is "no question the Owens and Northcutt cases were real screwups on their [the agents'] part."
Because Northcutt's contract is different than Owens's — the new deadline actually was later than the original one in Northcutt's contract, and he still missed it — he has not been able to follow the path that Owens followed. But Stanley said recently he would file a grievance against the Browns for their treatment of Northcutt, in refusing to trade him, since the contract deadline was missed.
The Ravens and Denver Broncos apparently have come and gone as potential trade destinations for Northcutt, and he remains under contract to the Browns for the next three seasons for salaries totaling about $2 million. The Browns reportedly have offered him a new two-year contract worth about $2 million — far less than the five-year, $16 million offer they reportedly made before the missed deadline.
"This mistake is going to cost him millions of dollars and his freedom," Upshaw said. "We've had mistakes in the past where there was a disagreement over contract language. But when you're talking about millions and millions of dollars and losing a chance to be a free agent — you might not get that chance again. The system has worked. But the agents have to do their part."
Said Stanley: "I understand [Upshaw's] frustration. I share his frustration, working hard for these rights and then, because of an administrative mistake, the player loses his freedom. Players need to be protected from incompetence. I share his concern. But he doesn't know me that well. I've been certified for 16 years and have had a number of clients. I've had the number one overall pick in the draft [Keyshawn Johnson], and he's done well for himself. I've had a number of clients in the NBA. I think his characterization is a little misleading. I'm not a new agent."
"In a business run by human beings, there are always going to be mistakes, misreadings, misunderstandings on both sides of the table, unfortunately. I'm not ready to call it a trend."Arrington has said the eight-year, $68 million contract extension that he signed with the Redskins is missing a $6.5 million bonus in 2006 that the sides had agreed to, adding that he and Poston missed that fact before Arrington signed the contract because of pressure to complete the deal.
"I don't want to comment on the merit of their grievance because it will be grieved," Upshaw said. "But this is not a situation where the owner [the Redskins' Daniel Snyder] isn't spending money. He's spending like a drunken sailor."
Poston, who runs his business with his brother, Kevin, said he did not make a mistake in the Arrington negotiations.
"I'm kind of disappointed Gene would make comments like that without the matter being adjudicated," Carl Poston said. "Each case has to be looked at on the merits. I know I didn't make a mistake. LaVar knows what happened. I know what happened, and [Redskins negotiator] Eric Schaffer knows. Those people know the facts. I'm not sure Dan Snyder knows. It's unfortunate Gene feels the way he does. I don't see how the number of clients you have affects this. I've been in this business for 15 years, and I have always looked out for the best interests of my client."