African-American sports agents address challenges in the business

When Cleveland Browns receiver Braylon Edwards fired agent C. Lamont Smith two weeks ago, the small community of African-American sports agents took notice.

Smith, one of the most widely respected agents in the business, negotiated what was considered one of the best deals in the 2005 draft for Edwards, the third overall pick.

Although Edwards currently is without representation, he has met with officials at Creative Artists Agency -- a Los Angeles-based talent agency that leaped into the sports agent business two years ago and already has more than 350 professional athletes under contract, including Peyton Manning, Derek Jeter, LeBron James and Sidney Crosby.

Smith, who is African-American, speculates that the aura of greater fame and fortune
might have cost him Edwards, who also is African-American and was signed through 2009. Smith calls it "the lure of big corporate entities with their marketing and endorsements and promises of riches that may not come."

Just as troubling to Smith and other African-American agents is that the top agents at the larger agencies, like CAA, are mostly white, creating a scenario in which numerous African-American athletes -- a number of them major stars -- have non-African- Americans running their business affairs.

Smith recalls the first day of last year's NFL draft, when 14 out of the first 15 players selected were African-Americans, but only one -- Gaines Adams of Clemson -- selected an African-American agent, Fletcher Smith. (The only white player in the first 15, Joe Thomas of Wisconsin, chose Smith's company, All Pro Sports and Entertainment. Smith's partner and fellow agent, Peter Schaffer, is white and is listed as Thomas' agent.)

"What kind of message are we sending to African-American athletes when on the first day of the draft they turn on the TV and all they see are white guys in decision-making roles?" Smith said.

Not everyone feels the way Smith does. Depending on whom you ask, and the sport you're dealing with, the situation for African-American sports agents is bleak, evolving or flourishing.

Andre Farr weighs in on evolving. The chairman and chief executive officer of the Black Sports Agents Association (BSAA), which counts 874 member agents, believes self-discrimination on the part of African-American athletes remains the largest obstacle to the success of black agents.

"For years, not only in sports, but every area of professional management and business, [blacks] would not do business with African-Americans," he says. "They felt like they might be locked out of the process, or that they wouldn't be able to negotiate a fair and equitable deal. That attitude hasn't vanished. Yet, it's not true. It could not be further from the truth."

Farr ticks off the names of a dozen successful African-American agents who have represented some of the best athletes, white and black, in the past 25 years. "I'm telling you, these guys have been around a long time and are doing well."

One of them is Bill Duffy, the 48-year-old owner of BDA Sports Management, which deals only with professional basketball players. He is perhaps the best-known success story of recent years. In the 2007 NBA draft, Duffy and Mike Conley Sr., who works with Duffy, signed 10 of the 60 players in the draft's two rounds, including top pick Greg Oden and the fourth pick, Conley's son, Mike Conley Jr. Duffy also negotiated Steve Nash's $65 million deal with the Phoenix Suns and represents Yao Ming and Carmelo Anthony.

Racism of any kind is not something Duffy considers when pursuing athletes.

"I don't see that as a barrier," he says, noting the ethnic diversity of his client roster. "Hopefully, we're going to have an African-American president here shortly, so I think the tide has turned on that. It's up to us to push that even further. You operate on the basis that things are color-blind, one way or another. [Race] never enters into our thinking. I think that if you operate that way, then people look at you for the quality of work you do."

Along with Conley, Duffy employs two other African-American agents, Calvin Andrews and Ugo Udezue. So formidable and respected is the BDA team that, according to Duffy, CAA attempted to recruit him. "I respect them. But they're a different model. We have the same type of access and resources they have, but we have a more personalized and smaller structure."

Lamont Smith looks at the NBA, in which about 70 percent of the players are African-American, and contends that NFL players, about 60 percent of whom are black, have a different mind-set when choosing their agents. Part of the issue is that only six of the 119 Division I football coaches are African-American, giving black players little exposure to African-American authority figures.

"The NBA has been promoting African-Americans in upper management levels for a long time, so they are more visible to the players," says Smith, 51, who over the years has counted Barry Sanders, Eddie George, Trevor Pryce and Jerome Bettis among his clients. "Also, the young kids have had African-American coaches in their lives before they go to high school. On the football side, most of the people the young players have contact with are not African-American."

In Major League Baseball, in which about 9 percent of the players are African-American, black agents fare little better, particularly among top players.

"In baseball, there is something about the black athlete that just doesn't allow him to work with black agents," says Dave Stewart, who in a 17-year pitching career won three World Series rings and a World Series MVP award before becoming a pitching coach and a front office executive. Seven years ago, he opened Sports Management Partners in San Diego. Stewart, 51, is the only employee. "I haven't figured it out. I'm close with some of the guys, like C.C. Sabathia, Dontrelle Willis, Orlando Hudson. You would think because of my personal relationship with them that I would have a business relationship with them since I'm qualified. But it's been difficult."

Once a fierce competitor on the mound, Stewart has been equally gritty as an agent -- a business he loves because it keeps him close to the game. He negotiated a $66 million deal for Oakland A's third baseman Eric Chavez, and Stewart has built a clientele of 25 players around potential stars Matt Kemp and Chad Billingsley of the Dodgers. About half of his clients, 13 of whom are minor leaguers, are African-American.

Stewart himself never had an African-American agent, largely because he didn't know of any when he turned pro at age 20 in the mid-1970s. He signed with Tony Attanasio and remained with him throughout his career -- a loyalty Stewart says rarely exists in today's game.

On that subject, Stewart lamented that last year former NL MVP Ryan Howard fired his friend, Larry Reynolds, an African-American agent. Howard jumped to CAA, where he is represented by Casey Close.

"It's tough to figure out the mind of a black player when he does something like that," Stewart said. "Larry Reynolds is a very, very good agent."

Last week, the Philadelphia Phillies first baseman was awarded a record-tying $10 million salary in 2008 by an arbitration panel. If he continues his prodigious production, Howard will undoubtedly be seeking a nine-figure contract in the near future -- an enormous loss for Reynolds.

Reynolds, who has been an agent for 25 years, declined to discuss Howard's departure.

"It doesn't do me any good," he said.

Another high-profile firing occurred in 2005 when LeBron James parted ways with his African-American agent Aaron Goodwin, who negotiated $135 million in endorsement deals for James during his first two years in the NBA. James started his own company, LRMR Marketing with three of his childhood friends. Last year, LRMR signed its first client, wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. of the Miami Dolphins. As for James, even though he operates his own agency, he employs Leon Rose of CAA as his agent. Rose, who also represents Allen Iverson, is white.

Goodwin received credit from many of his fellow agents for handling the loss of James with class. He rebounded nicely, snaring Kevin Durant and Al Horford, the second and third picks in the 2007 NBA draft. Still, after Tiger Woods, James is perhaps the most recognized and marketable African-American in sports -- a coup for CAA and a loss for the network of African-American agents.

Examples like this cause Lamont Smith to believe that diversity advancement, as he puts it, has regressed dramatically in recent years. Several factors are in play, he says. Both he and Duffy contend that the impact of the larger agencies, like CAA and Octagon, make it difficult to compete, in particular. Those big agencies give athletes up-front money before they sign contracts.

Smith also disdains the practice of the larger agencies using African-Americans as recruiters of African-American athletes.

"Almost without exception the people who are doing the contracts, who are the decision-makers, are non-African-Americans, but in many cases they will hire tokens to be their front people," he says.

Finally, Smith says the moderate success achieved by a small group of African-American agents has caused diversity advancement to become a non-issue: "It's not an agenda item."

Considering these obstacles, it's not surprising that there's a shortage of young, independent African-American agents -- or agents of any race, for that matter, according to Duffy.

"This is a very challenging business. It's a very competitive business. It's really hard to break in unless you're in with a major firm or are an established entity," he says.

Sharon Creer, a Duffy protégé, and one of the few African-American women in the business, says she has found a niche as an independent agent who represents men and women who play basketball in the WNBA and Europe.

"I wear a lot of hats," says Creer, 43, of San Francisco, who earned a master's degree in sports psychology. "I'm a big sister, a motivator, a confidant."

In her view, African-American agents should have an advantage recruiting African-American athletes, particularly those who come from poor urban areas, because the agent should be able to better relate to the athletes and their families.

"The bottom line, though, depends on how the relationship is nurtured," says Creer, who along with Duffy, is a member of the BSAA board of directors.

Like Creer, Todd Ramasar possesses a more optimistic view. At 28, Ramasar, a graduate of UCLA where he played basketball, is one of the youngest independent African-American agents. He counts fellow UCLA alumnus and NBA All-Star Baron Davis of the Golden State Warriors among his clients.

Not surprisingly, Ramasar's optimism stems in part from his background as a player.

"It's definitely an advantage," he says. "You're able to communicate with your clients that much better."

Ramasar, who began his career with Arn Tellem, a top agent with 37 NBA clients, also views the notion of self-discrimination differently than Farr and Smith.

"It's foreign to me because as a former athlete I want to give athletes a lot more credit and not being close-minded," he says. To that end, Ramasar sees the moves by Ryan Howard and LeBron James to CAA as non-discriminatory.

"It might just be a better fit," he says. "But because African-American agents are in the minority, the chances of landing with another one is small."

Smith has a harsher view, based on his experiences and the difference between the NBA and the NFL. He believes an attitude adjustment among players and their families is necessary to level the playing field.

"The mentality of the player and decision-maker has to change," he says. "It can only change through education -- becoming aware that if you get someone competent to do your deals, no matter their skin color, you'll pretty much be OK. But you have to give African-Americans a chance to come in and compete for the business."

Even Duffy, who believes that the best agent, regardless of color, usually will win the day, is acutely aware of the impact of his work.

"I look at what I do," he says, "as critically important for other young African-Americans, aspiring business people or sports entrepreneurs to know that an African-American can lead a major global successful organization." /p>

George J. Tanber is a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at george.tanber@iscg.net.