Locked Out: Swept up by the NFL labor crisis

Locked out: NFL agent Joby Branion draws strength from past to advise football stars

Jennifer S. Altman/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST - Sports agent Joby Branion, in black collar shirt, is seen with his client, football player Von Miller, II, right, and members of Miller’s family. The NFL draft begins Thursday.

NEW YORK — Joby Branion leads his client through the glass double-doors on the fifth floor of a Midtown high-rise and is immediately greeted by framed jerseys, platinum albums and photos of alluring swimsuit models hanging on the walls. Making his way to a spacious corner office, the client, a 22-year-old stack of muscles named Von Miller, snaps a quick picture with his phone.

They’re here for a meeting to discuss Miller’s lucrative future. As a likely top-10 pick in the NFL draft Thursday night, his financial standing will soon change drastically, though he’s not sure when. A team will soon own Miller’s rights, but Branion won’t be able to negotiate a contract until the NFL lockout ends.

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Branion arranged the meeting with a high-end financial services firm. It’s not typically part of his job, but Branion feels its part of his responsibility.

“It’s important to have quality professionals around you who all have independent fiduciary responsibility to you,” he tells Miller.

Branion is one of more than 750 sports agents who were actively registered with the NFL Players Association before the union dissolved. Each is now caught in the middle of the labor battle between NFL owners and players that is threatening the 2011 season. They have no seat at the bargaining table, but as long as players are locked out, so are their agents.

“I don’t know if many people have a lot of empathy for an agent or an agency, but we’re not all evil people,” Branion says. “This is a business, and everyone who works for us, their livelihoods are directly tied to us doing our job. We can’t collect fees if our clients don’t get paid.”

For Miller, a highly touted linebacker from Texas A&M, this marks his first trip to New York, and he spends much of his time walking the streets with his neck craned toward the sky. Branion, 48, has taken him all over the city: Central Park, dinner at Carmine’s, appointments with stylists and suit designers, and this meeting in the office of Vernon Brown, who heads the financial services firm. Miller listens intently, and Branion occasionally interjects to make sure his client fully digests everything Brown tells him.

Branion, whose stocky, 6-foot-plus frame still hints at his own football playing days, is protective of his players. He survived a traumatic childhood, his own obstacles stripped from the pages of a dime-store murder-mystery novel. He aims to usher his clients not just into the world of pro football, but into adulthood.

“There’s a natural paternalistic component to me,” Branion says, “a natural desire to want to help people.”

Money talks

The agent business revolves around money, first and foremost. Without free agency and with no bonuses paid since NFL owners locked out their players March 4, agencies like Branion’s have had little cash flow, while accumulating heavy expenses. They get ready for the draft by pouring money into prepping prospects, not knowing when they’ll see a return.

Branion works for Athletes First, and he and his company are banking big on this year’s draft. Athletes First represents 15 prospects, and Branion is primarily responsible for Miller, who is engaging and talented, and also happens to be one of the 10 plaintiffs in the players’ class-action lawsuit against the NFL.

In the spacious offices of V. Brown & Co., Inc., with modern art on the walls and prospective clients seated around a round table, Brown jumps into his sales pitch. “One thing our clients have in common, whether it’s models, musicians or athletes, they’re all fairly young,” Brown tells Miller. “They also all have the opportunity and abilities to earn tens of millions of dollars. And finally, the time of earning potential tends to be shorter.”

If the Buffalo Bills select Miller with the No. 3 pick, as many suspect they will, the 22-year-old linebacker stands to earn millions. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, last year’s third pick, signed a $63 million contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Branion and Athletes First also stand to collect big; the agent and his firm collect 3 percent of each client’s playing contract — though only after the lockout ends.

To manage his pending wealth, Branion has encouraged Miller to seek advisers who are independent of each other. But his agency is a full-service operation, and his other clients say Branion delivers a level of personal attention that’s difficult to put in a job description.

Running back Ahman Green has been with him his entire 12-year pro football career. He recalls an early incident when a woman accused him of domestic violence. The charge was dropped, but Green had to spend a night in jail following his arrest.

“I don’t know how he got there, but the next day, he was the first person I saw, the first person I hugged,” Green says. “Joby was there before any family or friend. He didn’t have to do that but he did. To be a good agent, you’ve got to have that quality. You can’t just look at your client as somebody who’s going to fill your pockets. You got to see them as a person because they’re gonna be like family.”

Branion has a wife and four children in Chapel Hill, N.C., but he spent a lifetime trying to understand what the idea of family meant.

A troubled past

He never knew his birth parents. He was adopted as a baby by John Marshall Branion, a doctor who cared for Martin Luther King Jr., and was active in the civil rights movement, and Donna Branion, who came from one of Chicago’s most influential black families.

On the morning of Dec. 22, 1967, John Branion picked up Joby from child care and returned home, where, he told police, he found his wife lying on the floor of a utility room, blood pouring from 13 fresh bullet holes. Police investigated several theories, before settling on one suspect. Joby was 4 years old when his father was arrested for murdering his mother.

Though prosecution lacked a weapon, a witness or forensic evidence, it successfully argued that John Branion was guilty of killing Joby’s mother. Facing a 20- to 30-year sentence, Branion obtained a falsified passport and fled the country in 1971.

Joby was 8 years old when his father left. Living in Wareham, Mass., he settled into a routine. But life was never normal. “I remember the FBI stopping me on the way to school,” he says. ‘Have you seen your father? When’s the last time you talked with him?’”

Raised by a stepmother — the elder Branion had remarried before fleeing — he found male role models in coaches, teachers, family friends and friends’ families.

“Honestly, I felt like football became my father,” Branion says.

He attended Tabor Academy, an elite prep school, and thrived on the football field. At home, though, his relationship with his stepmother deteriorated, and by time Branion graduated he had moved in with his godparents.

“He just couldn’t understand it,” says Mike Silipo, Branion’s high school coach. “He was doing everything he could possibly do to make a parent proud, and he wasn’t getting it back. It just boggled his mind.”

Meanwhile, John Marshall Branion bounced around two continents. Trying to stay a step head of authorities, he filled his passport with stamps from Tanzania, Brazil, Egypt, Sudan, Kenya, Zambia, Ivory Coast and Botswana. He thought he’d found refuge in Uganda, but officials there eventually turned him over U.S. authorities.

In November 1983, 15 years after the murder of his wife, Branion was back in Chicago Criminal Court, where he was ordered to serve his sentence. News that his father was back in the States was not easy for the younger Branion to process.

“I had no idea whether he was innocent or not,” he says. “Nobody ever talked with me about it. I didn’t know. But I wanted to know. You have to remember, he was accused of murdering my mother. If he did it, I wanted to know.”

Smart financial planning

For a penny-counting accountant, there’s at least one constant when it comes to pro football players: Spending increases during idle time.

“Financially, we see the numbers change,” Brown tells Miller. “Just like a bye week. If you plot an athlete’s expense, you can just look at the numbers and you can spot the bye weeks. So, this lockout scenario could really impact players who aren’t being smart with their money.”

Branion has advised his clients to do the same, and he’d preached smart financial planning with Miller since the day they met. Back then, dozens of agents were trying to sign Miller. His father, Von Sr., spoke with them all and treated each the same.

“We weren’t trying to make friends,” said Miller Sr., who runs his own power-supply business in Dallas. “We always had our guard up, never let it down.”

He’d heard stories about the seedy side of agents. It’s a cut-throat business where one never knows what lies behind a smile. Branion’s past, too, has black marks. He has twice been suspended for accusations of stealing clients. One was reduced from one year to nine months and the second was tossed out on appeal.

The successes, though, have been numerous. Athletes First has represented more than 100 athletes -- NFL stars such as Carson Palmer, Matt Schaub and Ray Lewis -- and negotiated more than 200 contracts. The firm represented 14 picks in last year’s draft, more than any other agency.

In January, Branion was again in the Millers’ home. They’d narrowed their list of potential agents to four. And then two. And finally one.

One day after they signed a contract, Branion returned to pick up Miller and take him to California to begin training. For the elder Miller, it was bittersweet.

“I knew there was a lot of pressure and my protection was going away,” he says. “Joby had him now and I didn’t. Before he left, I talked to Joby and he told me, ‘I’ll be with him. Don’t worry.’ ”

Lockout looms over all

Branion warned Miller when he chose to return to Texas A&M for a final year that a lockout could loom over his rookie season. Miller has since positioned himself as one of the faces of the divisive issue. Two days before his meeting in New York, he sat in a Minnesota courtroom as one of the 10 plaintiffs in the players’ suit against the league. The other nine plaintiffs are NFL veterans.

Branion told him that teams would be foolish to pass on his talents because of his involvement in the case. But he also warned Miller that he’d have to answer questions about it. Sure enough, as Miller makes his pre-draft visits with teams, the question has continually come up: Why are you suing the NFL?

“I love this game,” he tells them, “and I just want to play football.”

Branion understands that passion. He attended Duke on a football scholarship. He wasn’t drafted but signed a contract with the Washington Redskins in 1985. When Coach Joe Gibbs cut him on the final day of training camp, Branion packed his belongings into his Chrysler LeBaron and drove aimlessly for a week.

“I’d heard my whole life, you can’t count on football. Well, that was against everything I’d experienced from age 8 to 22. The one thing that I always could count on was football,” he says. “And it was gone.”

Branion never set out to become an agent. He was 33 years old working as a corporate lawyer when a friend told him about an opportunity with Lee Steinberg’s booming agency.

“Law paid well, but there was very little in terms of reward,” he says. “My contribution to society felt minimal. It was like a slow personal death, like my soul was being sapped.”

So he left law, eventually jumping to Athletes First, where he’s carved out an important role with one of the sport’s top agencies.

Questions, questions

Miller’s father sits next to him for the entire meeting in Brown’s office, but it’s the player who asks most of the questions.

“So if I get $20 million,” Miller says, “I’ll pay half in taxes, give or take. But then I can take that half that I actually get and put it into an account where I’m earning five percent, right?”

“Exactly,” Brown says. “You’re thinking logically.”

Miller comes from a comfortable, middle-class background. Because the NFL won’t pay him a dime for several months, the lockout hasn’t prompted much of a lifestyle change. Like many draft prospects, much of his expenses are paid for by his agent.

At Branion’s office, a memo circulated recently, reminding Athletes First employees that they aren’t operating in normal working conditions. With most revenue delayed until free agency can begin and rookies can sign contracts, Athletes First is carefully tracking each dollar it spends.

“We have to be more pragmatic as a company,” Branion says. “We don’t know how this will be resolved. We’re hopeful that it’s resolved fairly soon and with as little pain as possible.”

He’s not worried when he says that. He’s been dealing with the unknown his entire life. While his childhood taught him to compartmentalize some emotions, it also gave him faith that things work out in the end.

Seventeen years after he last saw his his father, Branion was 25 years old when he drove to an Illinois prison. “I kept thinking that I should turn the car around,” he says.

Inside the prison walls, when John Marshall Branion turned the corner, he was much smaller than his son remembered. His hands, though, were still big and powerful.

“I didn’t realize how big a hole I had in my life,” Branion says.

Branion began studying his father’s case closely. There was a new appeal in the works and a new set of lawyers. They began their investigation from scratch and revealed shoddy casework, suspect practices by the original judge and evidence that showed Branion didn’t have time that day two decades earlier to leave the hospital, pick up Joby, visit a friend and kill his wife according to the prosecution’s time line.

The appeal for his release was denied in federal court. In 1990, Gov. James Thompson commuted his sentence, citing the prisoner’s failing health. Suffering from a heart condition and a brain tumor, John Marshall Branion died one month later. He was 64.

“He loved me,” his son says. “To this day, I can feel the love that he felt for me. And I make it a point to tell my kids every day how much I love them. That’s something I learned from him.”

 
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