The NFL's offseason has been filled with controversies over players' contracts, and some of the sport's top officials say they blame the players' agents.
Now the leaders of the NFL Players Association say they are prepared to do something about it, perhaps with tougher screening methods for prospective agents, more persistence in getting agents to take advantage of the union's resources and possible punishments for those agents involved in this offseason's confusion.
Terrell Owens managed to catch on with the Eagles despite his agent, David Joseph, failing to file the necessary paperwork that would have made him an unrestricted free agent.
Union chief Gene Upshaw said he believes that the agents in the high-profile disputes involving Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens, Washington Redskins linebacker LaVar Arrington and Cleveland Browns wide receiver Dennis Northcutt made mistakes. Upshaw said he expects some or all of those cases to be examined closely by the union's agent disciplinary committee and sanctions possibly imposed.
"I'm hoping there's not a trend going on, but we have seen an awful lot of mistakes," Upshaw said. "I am concerned because every time a mistake is made, the player is the one left holding the bag. . . . We have a discipline committee, and they will look at this. There will be some cases they take action on, no doubt about that. I usually don't get involved in that process, but I've been more involved than usual because so many players are losing so much money."
Buffalo Bills cornerback Troy Vincent, the new president of the Players Association and the head of the agent disciplinary committee, said the Owens, Arrington and Northcutt cases are "a major concern" to the union.
"We are cracking down on those agents who are not living up to our standards," Vincent said. "Most agents do a very good job. But we've had some major mistakes with contract language -- not so much with the dollars and cents and negotiating a good deal, but with the language."
David Joseph represents Owens, who was traded to the Eagles last month as part of a settlement that resolved a dispute arising from the failure of Joseph and Owens to meet a February deadline to file the paperwork necessary to void the remainder of Owens's contract with the San Francisco 49ers and make him an unrestricted free agent. Agent Jerome Stanley and Northcutt missed a similar deadline, and Northcutt remains at odds with the Browns. Arrington has filed a grievance against the Redskins alleging there is $6.5 million missing from the contract extension that he and his agent, Carl Poston, negotiated with the team in December.
The union oversees the certification and discipline of agents, but concern also is being voiced from other corners of the league.
"The agents are a concern because these kinds of mistakes cause controversy, dissent, friction and bad feelings between the player and the club and the league," said Harold Henderson, the NFL's executive vice president of labor relations. "It's friction that you don't need in a negotiation-based system. The rules should be applied clearly, and some of these people don't know some of the rules. . . . Because it affects their future business, they [agents] never will admit a mistake. They fight everything. They'll lay the blame with someone else and they'll cause lawyers to over-reach just to get out of it.
"I'd like to see it policed more carefully."
Henderson said there are too many certified agents, and the best in the field have too many clients while others have few clients and almost no experience. Vincent said the union needs to "create a better screening process" and work harder to educate the agents that it does certify. Players also must do their part, Upshaw said, by picking good agents and firing those who make costly mistakes.
"The most amazing thing is the loyalty you see on the players' part," Upshaw said. "You try to tell them, and they say they trust the guy. It's like the old saying, 'You can't tell a guy his wife is ugly.' And, in some of these cases, she's fat, too. But they don't want to hear it."
Said veteran NFL agent Peter Schaffer: "In some of these cases, you're talking about the difference between [a player] having financial security for life and not. Mistakes are made in every walk of life. But, to me, missing a deadline or not reading a contract is inexcusable, bordering on malpractice. I don't know if it should be up to the union to fix it. Yes, the union is in charge of licensing and monitoring agents. But a player should make sure that the person representing him is not just competent, but highly skilled and able to keep up with the changes in the business."
The union's agent disciplinary committee is a five-member panel of current and former players consisting of Vincent, Trace Armstrong, Robert Porcher, Robert Smith and Larry Izzo. The committee can issue a complaint against an agent, who then is given a chance to respond before the committee decides on possible disciplinary action ranging from a reprimand to a fine to a suspension to lifetime decertification. An agent can appeal any disciplinary action to arbitrator Roger Kaplan, and normally is allowed to continue to represent players during the appeal. Cases generally take six months or more to be resolved.