Jackie Ferguson: Thanks for listening to the diversity beyond the checkbox podcast today, I am honored to have Leigh Steinberg with me.
Leigh is a famed American sports agent, philanthropist and author. During his 40 plus career Leigh has represented over 300 professional athletes in football, baseball, basketball, boxing, and Olympic sports. He has represented the number one overall pick in the NFL draft, a record eight times and a record 12 hall of Famers.
If you're not a sports enthusiast, like I am, you've likely seen the movie. Jerry McGuire with Tom cruise. Jerry McGuire was inspired by Leigh Seinberg in the intro. I said he was an American sports agent, but Leigh is the American sports agent. Leigh. Thank you so much for spending some time with me today.
Leigh Steinberg: My pleasure.
Happy to be.
Jackie Ferguson: Yes. I'm so excited for this conversation. As I move through these 254 questions, just joking. I've got so many. I I'm gonna start with a few, but, um, I'd love to start just by asking how you became a sports agent and what's been the most exciting part of your career.
Leigh Steinberg: So, um, I grew up in Los Angeles.
I was raised by a father who had two core values. One was treasure relationships, especially family. And the second was try to make a meaningful impact in the world in a positive way and help people who can't help themselves. So I went undergrad to UC Berkeley. Mm. And, um, I was student body president when Ronald Reagan was governor and I learned everything I needed to learn about negotiating.
Dealing with him when we demonstrated against the war in Vietnam and he cracked down, uh, I was a dorm counselor in an undergraduate dorm working my way through law school and they moved the freshman football team into the dorm. And one of the students was the quarterback on the team. Steve OWS. In 1975, he became the very first player picked in the first round of the NFL draft.
And I had graduated from law school and had traveled the world and was about ready to take one or two or three jobs. And Barki asked me to represent him. So there I was Jackie brimming with legal experience, never having practiced. I had the first pick overall on the NFL drought. Wow. There was a, a world football league competing against the NFL back in 1975.
And, um, we got the largest rookie contract in NFL history. Wow.
Jackie Ferguson: And Leigh, just for, for those folks who. May not know how many amazing people you've represented. You've represented everyone from Steve. Burkowski all the way to Patrick Mahomes. So, I mean, there have been so many, and of course I have to call out big Ben as a, as a Steelers fan.
Um, but it it's been so many people, um, that you've been able to represent. And I'm just wonder. What do you think was the draw in, you know, having so many opportunities for different people to represent them? Right. Why do you think they came to you Leigh?
Leigh Steinberg: Well, I had a philosophy that athletes could serve as role models and go back to the high school community, uh, retrace their roots.
Put together a high school scholarship fund or work with the church or boys and girls club at the collegiate institution go back and bond with the alums by setting a scholarship fund up or doing something with the school. And then at the pro level, finding the leading political figures. Community leaders and business leaders to put on a advisory board and then execute a foundation that would address some basic problem.
So work done, just put the 200 single mother and her family into the first home they'll ever own by making the down payment of moving them in mm-hmm so it's the concept that athletes changing lives. It's I had. Heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis and boxing cut a public service announcement that said real men don't hit.
Yes. I remember that that could do more to trigger behavioral changes in rebellious adolescence towards how they treat women than a thousand authority figures ever could. So I looked for people who shared that, uh, philosophy, but I really think the most important skill in life. Jackie is listening. It's drawing out another human being and creating enough.
In them that they will reveal to you their values and priorities and cut below the layer of the surface and peel back the layers of the onion. So you get deeper and deeper. So you understand someone else's deepest, anxieties and fears and greatest. Hopes and dreams, and you can bond at a level so that you really can fulfill them.
So I tried to get to know the athletes as human beings and think of them holistically in respect to what other skills they have besides athletic ones, second career making a difference in the world and, um, looking for a special type of, uh, young man or. . Mm,
Jackie Ferguson: wow. What great advice for any leader. Thanks for sharing that Leigh.
Let's jump into a couple current events. So the NFL has agreed to a new suspension terms for Deshaun Watts. Following the accusations of sexual misconduct made against him by, um, two dozen women in Texas. So he'll be suspended for 11 games during the 2022 season and find 5 million that will go to charity.
Leigh, what are your thoughts on this news? How do you respond to.
Leigh Steinberg: I think the NFL has to be a leader in setting the example for the proper way that men and women interact. And, um, if we have an athlete who's entering the sport, one of the things I stress is that you cannot put your hands in. Or inappropriately on anyone, but especially not a woman.
And so the, this has to be an issue we're sensitive about, uh, I don't know the facts of the Deshaun Watson case. Probably it's nobody does. It's he said, she said, but, um, he did settle with a large group of women. Um, and I think he needs to be consistent because at one. He said, well, I'm sorry for what happened.
And another point, he said, well, but I'm in. And so he, there needs to be recognition that whatever happened in those rooms didn't sit well with people and the NFL needs to be the leader in the standard. Now that specific penalty was collectively bargained. Between the players and, uh, ownership. So six to 10 games was what they agreed upon.
Um, I think that the NFL went back, it acted decisively and thinking the initial penalty was too low and, and got some things added on. And remember that Watson didn't play all last season. So, um, certainly. It, it it's so important if you believe in role modeling to believe that athletes need to not be the problem, but be the solution in this area.
Jackie Ferguson: Absolutely. Leigh, what is your take on the inequities that exist in sports leadership? Why aren't there more black head coaches in the NFL when 70% of the league is black and what are some of the invisible roadblocks that hold underrepresented candidates back from hiring mentoring, promot.
Leigh Steinberg: I look at this the same way.
I look at the a, uh, black quarterback issue. Mm-hmm back when I represented Warren moon, there was a certain feeling, not expressed openly, but that black athletes were not, uh, really qualified to play the so-called thinking physicians, which were quarterback then. And it was middle linebacker and the rest of it.
And there just weren't. Uh, many black quarterbacks at all. Absolutely. And, and so I had Warren moon and, and we had to deal with that issue because people wanted him to switch his positions. Um, you need to create a pool in that case of enough younger black quarterbacks playing college football in pro set.
So you were getting the six foot, four big strong pro quarterback. Um, And here it's the same thing. You need to create a pool. Um, very consciously, uh, in business school, in law school, in, in, and ultimately the coaching ranks. Um, so that there's so many qualified candidates that, that you can pick them. And what, what happened with the quarterback position is not only are you two thirds of the greatest quarterbacks in pro football, black, you now have black backup quarterbacks.
So it's, it's not a situation where only elite few make it. And then that's what we have to do in sports. So some of the things they're trying to do make sense. Per do training sessions with, with black, um, uh, assistant coaches. So they see how the system works to make sure that they get interviews as coordinators.
Cause the coordinators are the next step up. Um, but there needs to be conscious intent here to keep pushing the issue, keep training more and. Uh, younger black, uh, assistant coaches and then coordinators and then front office, uh, people. And, uh, we, we just had a breakthrough where the first African American woman is now president of the, uh, of the Las Vegas Raiders.
Um, and they're breaking this barrier is like breaking women in sports. It's like breaking anything else. You have to. A real plan to continue to crank out, um, a whole gifted group of, uh, uh, black executives and, and, uh, assistant coaching and head coaches so that we have better diversity and representation.
Jackie Ferguson: Absolutely. And Leigh, from your perspective, what can people do who are in positions of power or influence whether in sports or even corporations to make a more equitable path forward for underrepresented professionals?
Leigh Steinberg: I look at it that like our office should reflect the state of California. And if, if you walk into our offices, you should see, um, African Americans and Latinos and Asians and you, you should see all.
Quality, uh, people, but, but you know, you've gotta have a conscious, um, intent and in encouraging this and, and in, uh, developing it. So it's really important for me that if you walk in our office or out on the streets of, uh, of Southern California, um, were reflective of, of the people who.
Jackie Ferguson: Absolutely. And I, I love that conscious intent is the important part.
And that's, I think sometimes what's missing. Um, if you're not consciously and intentionally making that important, you know, it can get lost in the shuffle, in your network that sometimes looks like you went to the same schools, cetera. And so, um, I love that conscious.
Leigh Steinberg: I'll give you an example of what we've done at a younger age here in orange county.
I teamed up with the, um, human relations commission and we put together a series of day, summer camps and night, summer camps for middle school kids and high school kids. And we took them from every ethnic, uh, background, every racial group and gave him a week of leadership. And, and so they worked together and we identified young potential leaders and, and gave them the training.
So first of all, they respected each other's differences and treasured, the richness of everyone's different background. And second of all, we're comfortable with each other. And, and once you get to know people. That's why sports, uh, works so well. So anyway, that program, uh, turned out a number of different young leaders, um, uh, from African American and, and Vietnamese and different backgrounds.
And they'll all go out and be leaders. Um, we did another one with Soki university, um, where we trained people in peace training and, and brought together. We, we took a group of. Of, uh, black south African kids and brought 'em over here and had them spend a week in leadership training. And another year it was from, uh, uh, Bangladesh.
So you, you, you have to in your own life be pushing for these concepts. And I used to have a father of Jackie who said, when you're looking for someone to. make a change or fix a problem. Mm-hmm , as minor is picking something up off the floor that's trash, or as major is fighting back against skinhead and hate groups and, and, and, um, and fighting for the environment you, the tendency is to wait for the they or them, the amorphous, they they'll do it.
You know, older people, political figures. And my, my dad used to look at me and he'd. you could wait forever son. The, they is you. Mm. Are the they, so I think we all have a responsibility and in our own time, in our own way to try to push the boundaries here. So. .
Jackie Ferguson: I love that Leigh. Thanks for sharing that your father, um, you know, in, in hearing your Ted talk and, and interviews, you talk about your dad a lot.
Um, would you like to share a little bit more about him and the influence that he's had in your life?
Leigh Steinberg: Well, we. Um, my father's big passion was human relations and fighting racism. And so he was head of the human relations commission of, uh, of Los Angeles, which was all the representative of different ethnic groups to try to keep peace and further understanding.
So we were hardwire. My brothers and I around the table to make a difference, make a change, you know? And, and so it's just part of, um, our DNA and at the end of life, I think that. What will have been important is, is, uh, was I a good father? Was I good son? Was I good husband? Was I good to my friends in times of crisis?
Was I there for them? And ultimately did. I tried to relieve the pain of, um, of people who were suffering and, uh, and, and really at the end of the day, that's it. , that's
Jackie Ferguson: that an amazing perspective? Leigh, you have two best selling books, the agent and winning with integrity, the titles are certainly indicative of your personal journey, right?
Becoming an agent and then committing to winning with integrity. How do you win with integrity at your level and how can we apply those principles to our lives?
Leigh Steinberg: Well, I think it's really important.
I think it's really important not to embrace the concept of situational ethics. Mm-hmm so part of what's wrong. The society is that people use two different systems. So they're nice to cats and dogs. They're good neighbor. They're good at home. And now they go out in the workplace and use heinous social Darwin tactics because after all the end justifies the means is just business and.
We can't have that, uh, uh, because that leads to, to corporations putting, uh, sewage into, into lakes, right. It leads to, to all sorts of, uh, desperate things. We have to have just one model of, of how you live. So I think it's, it is critical that people. Be out in the workplace using the same values and ethics, I think are important, um, at home.
And, um, most of us are gonna live in, in situations in our workplace where we're interacting with a group of people over and over and over again. Yeah. So your word is your bond and your reputation is critical. So don't be tempted to get out of a short term situation. By misleading someone or lying. So a client calls up and, and they're disturbed cuz you haven't talked to 'em in a.
so under the pressure of that situation, someone said, well, I called you back. Um, right. So the, the reality is that person knows you didn't call 'em back. Um, and instead of just having a minor problem in that, you were a little bit tardy in responding to them. Now you've destroyed the relationship because they know you're not truthful.
Yeah. So it's really important. I think, to, to have one reality, And one truth and, and not com compartmentalizing so that you treat different situations with different facts, different standards and, and different values.
Jackie Ferguson: Absolutely. And Leigh, speaking of relationships, you've negotiated billions of dollars of agreements in your career.
How do you negotiate hard while maintaining strong relationships with
Leigh Steinberg: people? I think the key is to be able to put yourself into the other person's heart and mind and see the world the way they see it. Mm-hmm, being sensitive to what the goals are of whoever you're negotiating with. And what's going to create a win-win.
Uh, for them and, and get deep into the research. So you understand that person, what pressure they're under and all the rest of it. And so if you can be creative in craft win-win scenarios, so you're achieving what you want or what your client needs at the same time that you're helping. Uh, the organization, uh, uh, be better, stronger.
Uh, so it's, it's, it's always being conscious of, of looking at the world the way that other person would look at it and, and trying to. Their consciousness and then treat 'em with respect, make rational arguments based on, on, uh, facts and theories that, uh, make sense. Um, we do repetitive work and so that same owner or general manager I might deal with for 30 years.
So one transaction is just part of a overall pattern. And you have to be really careful. I always say, if someone's made a mistake and, and their neck is exposed and you step your foot on it, the only inevitable thing will be the same thing will happen in return mm-hmm . So it's really important to, to not have a scorched earth, uh, policy, but to have both parties walk away happy.
Jackie Ferguson: And Leigh, you say that that's part negotiating is part of everyday life, right? And so negotiating for the win-win in all of your relationships, by putting yourself in that person's shoes, right. I think will help us, you know, have those conversations in all of our, our personal relationships, our professional relationships.
That's such great.
Leigh Steinberg: And we all negotiate. Um, people think of it as some specialization, but husbands negotiate with wives over where they're gonna vacation and who does the household chores and parents negotiate with kids over curfew. And we negotiate for our own jobs and compensations. We buy cars and we buy houses.
And so it's just an everyday part of life. And so it's all. Your communication skills. Um, can you be in this moment, Jackie? Um, at this particular moment, I don't know where my phone is. I'm not sure what day it is. All I'm thinking about is your voice in this moment. And if you'll put all your energy into each moment as if it's the last one, And hyper focused, then you've got a much better ability to, to navigate your way through life gracefully.
Jackie Ferguson: Wow. Amazing advice, Leigh, can we talk about your epic super bowl parties? You've been doing these now for 35 years. Will you tell us a little about them and why they're so important for you to host?
Leigh Steinberg: So. We've now done 36 of them. Okay. 36. The first key is to put owners and general managers and players and their families and business and sports and, um, big business, big sports, big entertainment, all.
Coal and big athletics, all coalesce at the super bowl. So one of the things we do is we find a charity. So Phoenix is next year and it's gonna be the homeless and this, um, um, last year it was, uh, young African American entrepreneurs and a program to mentor them. So. It, we, we do that. And then every year we have a brain health summit, which is to deal with the scourge of, uh, traumatic brain injury and concussion.
And, uh, I've been campaigning on this for years. We also give out philanthropic awards to, uh, owner or general manager, a player, a retired player to. To reward them for philanthropic things they've done, uh, off the field and encourage that. And then we try to pick an iconic site. So this last year it was at Sony studios, the old MGM, and, um, Uh, in, in, uh, Arizona it's we did one at the, uh, at the, uh, botanical gardens and, uh, it was all greened up and governor Nalan came and she and GA Giffords, and I released an endangered Hawk into the wild in every single part of the party was labeled how you could recycle or you could resurface.
So. They're a lot of fun, but they're also teaching and education experiences. This - I've been exploring a bunch of new modalities like hyperbaric oxygen and stem cells for healing and growth, not just for athletes, but for all of us, for cognitive health and aging. And so we had a display, we called the brain lounge with all the cutting edge technologies at the last.
Jackie Ferguson: That's awesome. Yeah, I saw that in the video and it was, it was pretty incredible brain health, you know, is, is so important and, and something near and dear to my heart, um, with my grandfather that had Alzheimer's. And so, um, it's so important to continue to draw attention to that, um, in the many ways and forms that, that, that comes in.
So that's amazing. Amazing. Leigh, one of the topics that you speak on, um, is recovery and with September being national recovery month, can you share a little about your story and give us some advice on how to overcome our own adversities, if you would.
Leigh Steinberg: So in, um, about 2010. I finally admitted to myself that I was having a problem with alcohol.
And, um, and the first step you have to do is break denial because addiction's the disease that tells you, you don't have a disease. So I had to break denial, admit that I was powerless over. And, uh, um, I went off the sober living. I worked a 12 step program with a unique, uh, fellowship, um, and. So I'm in the middle of my 13th year of continuous sobriety.
But when you begin, there's so much detri and destruction, uh, around that the, that the disease has caused and it's being self-destructive. And so. What's key is to somehow have the resilience to see that there's light at the end of the tunnel and that things can change. And part of what did it for me was a sense of proportionality that I wasn't.
A starving peasant in Dar fur that I didn't have the last name Steinberg and Nazi Germany in the thirties. I, I, I wasn't sick. I didn't have cancer. So what excuse was there, but you become overwhelmed to believe and. I had a situation where my two boys were diagnosed with retinitis figment, which is leads blindness and is incurable.
And my father died a long death of cancer, and we lost a house in a beach city from mold. And these. Things just kept happening in my private life and I felt responsible and overwhelmed. Um, so it's, it's seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. It's it's knowing if there's, um, A barn filled with, uh, horse defecation or poop.
Mm-hmm that somehow there must be a pony in there mm-hmm and, uh, it it's, it's having that sense. So it, it, uh, if anyone's out there and struggling and despondent, because of problems with addictive substances, just know that you can find help and you can live a happier life.
Jackie Ferguson: Absolutely. Thank you for sharing that, you know, it's.
People that are struggling, you know, need that sense of, of hope and that they can do it because they've seen others overcome it. So thank you so much for sharing that. So freely and vulnerably Leigh, you've played an instrumental role in facilitating more than a billion dollars in donations to charities around the world.
Why is that so important to you and certainly, you know, your father and, and that conversation, but you're, you're continuing to just do this work in so many different ways. Why is that important to you? Why is that part of your mission now?
Leigh Steinberg: Well, again, it's just a sense of, uh, personal responsibility. We all can contribute to the world in our own way.
Simply parenting children well is a major contribu. That's true. And, um, uh, but every person in their own way, in their own time, uh, can, can do it. But, um, it's, uh, This is our time. This is our watch. And so if we've got problems with sex trafficking or domestic, uh, violence or bullying or, uh, racism and, and the emergence of skinheads and, uh, the environment.
Um, it's, it's so clear that that we can use the symbols of popular culture, which are athletes to make a difference, and we all can make a difference, but, um, it's, uh, I just think it's, it's sort of the work we're assigned to do and to, um, um, not simply. um, curse of darkness, but light candles that that can inspire people.
Jackie Ferguson: Absolutely. And, you know, again, we can all do our part in our own way to make the world a little bit better. So I, I, I think that's fantastic. Thank you for all the work you're doing. Leigh, what is something about you that many people or most people don't know?
Leigh Steinberg: That I was, uh, Question on jeopardy or that I was a question in, um, trivial pursuit. Okay. Uh, uh, that, uh, when I grew up, um, my grandfather was, um, Head of Hillcrest country club. So all the actors hung out there. And so I have a picture with me on Maryland Monroe, lap and, uh, we cut a song with Groucho marks and his, uh, granddaughter.
Um, but so that was my grandfather's life, but my father was all about education mm-hmm um, um, that I like to read. Um, probably read three or four books a week. Uh, I, I see life of just a learning process. Mm-hmm and, uh, then I'm happiest at the beach or outdoors with, uh, the water. And, uh, so let's say one half Berkeley intellectual, one half Southern California beach boy.
Jackie Ferguson: I love that. Thank you so much. And Leigh, as you know, again, I, I, I have probably 300 more questions that I could ask you, but as we wrap up, what's the message that you'd like to leave our listeners with today.
Leigh Steinberg: I think it's important to do an internal assessment of what values are most critical and important to you so that you always have a sense of, of. Not what the world thinks, but what you think is critical. So how important is short term economic gain, long term economic security, geographical location, spiritual values, um, family, uh, making a difference in the world profile, being known autonomy and to be in, in touch with that, and then go out.
And use the finite amount of time. You have to, to fulfill yourself and to, um, make a difference. And, um, it's possible for each one of us to be impactful. Um, like I said, so it's clear to me. I have these two standards, uh, family friendship, and then the community service, but just be in touch with whatever it is that that you want.
And you can, you don't have to accept things as they are. You can dream, uh, a better dream of how they can be and, um, and worked towards.
Jackie Ferguson: That's amazing. Leigh, thank you so much for spending some time with me today for being such an inspiration for the amazing work that you're doing to make the world a better place.
Thank you again for being with us.
Leigh Steinberg: Thank you and compliments on your podcast, Jackie.
Jackie Ferguson: Oh, thank you, Leigh.
Leigh Steinberg is a sports legend, representing a dozen NFL Hall of Famers and iconic figures in every sport, including Olympic champions. Famously a role model for Tom Cruise’s character in Jerry Maguire, Steinberg is on a mission to bring diversity, equity, and inclusion to the forefront in the sports industry. Steinberg has secured over $4 billion for his 300+ pro athlete clients (including today’s top quarterback Patrick Mahomes) and directed more than $750 million to various charities globally. He’s been lauded by Presidents Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Obama and been interviewed by Larry King, but now he sits down with Jackie Ferguson for a wide-ranging discussion of the important topics facing the sports industry and society in the twenty-first century.