Arguably the most famous line from “Jerry Maguire” – the movie that took super agent Leigh Steinberg from sports-famous to dinner table-famous – is “Show me the money!” But in his meandering one-hour talk to UC Davis law students Wednesday, Steinberg spoke more about finding the “kwan,” a concept from the movie meaning love, respect, community – and dollars.
Steinberg has represented some of the biggest names in sports, including quarterback greats Steve Young, Troy Aikman and Warren Moon. His career, which has survived bankruptcy, alcohol dependency and turmoil, is credited with being the inspiration for Cameron Crowe’s 1996 film starring Tom Cruise. Steinberg visited UC Davis as he wraps up a tour promoting his book, “The Agent: My 40-Year Career Making Deals and Changing the Game,” with Michael Akrush (St. Martins Press, $25.99, 302 pages).
A Los Angles native, the 64-year-old Steinberg attended the University of California, Berkeley, receiving both his undergraduate and law degrees from the school at the heart of the hippy counterculture movement. His address seemed to suggest that he never fully walked away from his days as the campus student body president.
Steinberg opened his talk, arranged by the law school’s Entertainment and Sports Law Society, with a discussion about the values that his father, a high school principal, instilled in him on the importance of relationships and making a difference. He said he pressed his multimillionaire clients to retrace their roots and figure out ways to give back to the people and institutions that helped them along the way. He also pushed them to find something they were passionate about and to try to make a difference using their dollars and their voices, he said.
“I saw athletes can be role models. An athlete had the ability to inspire imitative behavior,” he told the students.
Foundations created with his athletes have raised millions of dollars for awareness of homelessness issues, endangered species and domestic violence, he said. His depiction of a benevolent, philanthropist agent runs counter to an industry that is often portrayed as full of sleazeball opportunists. Unprompted, he answered the question: “Are athletes overpaid?” by pointing out how the proliferation of cable television has dramatically increased franchise revenue.
Just as the agent in “Jerry Maguire” expressed concerns over dishonesty in sports management, Steinberg said he found himself conflicted about the mounting concussions suffered by his star quarterback clients and others.
“I knew intuitively that quarterbacks getting hit in the head was a bad thing. We talked to doctors but nobody could say how many (hits) was too many,” Steinberg said. He called the issue a ticking time bomb and a health epidemic far broader than football. Concussions could threaten the sport, he said. The league should invest in better helmet technology, diagnostic capabilities, pharmaceutical therapies and change how the game is played, he said.
“What did it matter if I could stack up dollars and send them off to a future with dementia in it?” he said.