HE is a husband and father of two. When his wife calls and tells him one of the kids said, "Coach Saban called Daddy a pimp," he got upset. Can you blame him?
Sports agent Kenny Zuckerman is a respected 23-year veteran of his profession. And I’m pretty sure he’s not a pimp. As far as I know, he doesn’t run an illegal business of prostitutes.
He represents professional athletes, among them many with Hawaii ties, including Olin Kreutz, Davone Bess and Tyson Alualu. He does all kinds of things for his clients, ranging from bidding on eBay for rare video games to negotiating multimillion dollar contracts. He works for them, not the other way around.
He’s helpful to people he doesn’t make money off of, too. Zuckerman patiently spent half an hour on the phone teaching me the finer points of arcane but important contract concepts such as escalator clauses, and explaining why it’s better for an NFL player to get a 3-year contract instead of a 4-year deal.
Two years ago he advised Bess to sign with the Miami Dolphins rather than accept an offer from another team for more money. He accurately predicted the Dolphins as a better fit for the long run, and look at Bess now.
Does that sound like something a pimp would do?
When we talked yesterday, the normally even-keeled Zuckerman was fired up. He sounded ready to cover a kickoff, like when he was a walk-on wide receiver at Arizona in the 1980s.
"That was asinine and immature," he said, in response to Alabama coach Nick Saban’s labeling of those in his profession as exploitive criminals. He wasn’t quite shouting, but it was by far the loudest I’ve ever heard Zuckerman’s voice.
It is true Saban wasn’t referring to all agents. After all, doesn’t he have one of his own, securing him those mutlimillion-dollar contracts he gets to coach players who don’t get paid?
But if you prescribe to popular stereotypes and myths, here’s what it seemed like: A pious football coach watching out for his kids against the entire industry of big, bad pimps.
In reality, that’s about as hypocritical as it gets.
If we listen to Saban and those of his ilk, it’s OK for coaches to cash huge paychecks, accept sponsorship deals from shoe companies, cars from auto dealers, more money to do radio and TV shows and God knows what else from boosters.
Meanwhile, the players—the guys who do the actual performing between the lines, who draw the crowds and viewers—get nothing other than whatever trinkets the NCAA allows, like those gift packages from bowl games.
In what other industry is it true that the top talent about to hit the job market cannot be wined and dined by headhunters?
It’s the perpetuation of the fantasy of amateurism in Division I college sports, especially football and basketball. Television changed everything long ago for everyone, and turned the players into pros who don’t get paid.
The coaches, conferences and schools make the money. The players—at least the vast majority not fortunate enough to be among the big-time prospects wooed by "the pimps"—get left behind.
Yes, some of them get scholarships, and they’re the big men on campus for a couple of years. But shouldn’t they receive a bigger share of what they generate financially for the universities?
SABAN’S INDICTMENT of agents included this line: "How would you feel if they did it to your child?"
How different is what agents do when recruiting prospects from colleges than what coaches do when recruiting them from high schools? The coaches are sketchier, since their marks are 17 years old, not 21.
There are clearly evil agents; I covered Tank Black and his misdeeds 11 years ago. But I agree with Zuckerman when he says, "There are more unscrupulous college coaches than agents."
Both promise the world. The agents actually deliver a lot more often.