He says his phone rarely goes more than a few minutes without ringing. He usually works 18 to 19 hours a day from his luxurious Miami Beach home, and phone conversations with him regularly are interrupted by the ringing of another phone. "Two seconds, buddy, two seconds," Drew Rosenhaus said when that happened just as one recent discussion was getting underway.
It is a typically frenetic day for the man who has become the most prominent and controversial agent negotiating contracts for players in the nation's most popular and prosperous sports league, the NFL. Rosenhaus has become notorious for using tough tactics and working virtually nonstop to line his clients -- and his -- pockets. He says he has negotiated $500 million worth of deals just since last year.
Now, as training camps begin, Rosenhaus is trying to enrich a client who is even more prominent and controversial than he is, Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens. And he is trying to do so by changing the way NFL teams do business.
Rosenhaus wants the Eagles to, in effect, tear up the seven-year, nearly $49 million contract that Owens signed just last year and reward Owens with an even more lucrative deal. As Rosenhaus sees it, the NFL system is unfair. The standard practice in the league is that only a player's signing bonus, not his annual salary, is guaranteed. As a result, teams can cut a player with years remaining on his contract and not have to pay him any more salary, yet a player like Owens has no recourse to rework a deal that, as Rosenhaus puts it, he has "outperformed."
Contract disputes and threatened holdouts are nothing new. But this one has gained the attention of the league brass and players because -- if Rosenhaus and Owens are successful -- it could revolutionize the way contracts are negotiated. Supporters of Rosenhaus say it would provide much greater financial security to athletes in a sport in which the average career expectancy is less than four years. Opponents say it could lead the NFL down the road taken by the NBA and Major League Baseball, where guaranteed contracts have resulted in many teams having to carry -- and pay -- underperforming veterans well past their prime.
The dispute comes at a time when the NFL is awash in money, having just completed new television contracts worth nearly $4 billion a year beginning in 2006 that will be divided among the league's 32 franchises. And it has added an additional measure of uncertainty as the league and the players' union, which long have maintained one of the most harmonious employer-labor relationships in sport, negotiate an extension of their collective bargaining agreement. Those deliberations have been uncharacteristically slow and troublesome.
Rosenhaus isn't waiting for a new labor deal to accelerate the upward climb of NFL players' salaries; he is eager to do it one client at a time -- in what he said is a battle for simple fairness.
"I don't portray myself as a champion of a cause, but I would like to make a contribution on a larger scale," Rosenhaus said during a recent interview, adding that "dozens of players seem to be finding the courage" to ask for renegotiated contracts.
"If we get more players to look at their situations like that, I feel like I've had a positive impact for them. This is not a general indictment of the system. The union has done a great job. But if a contract is not fair and he deserves to get a revised contract, no one should have a problem with that."
In Owens's case, Rosenhaus has struck a nerve with people who agree with thousands of Internet message-board posters and radio talk-show callers venting that the Eagles receiver should honor the deal he signed.
"He has no case, as far as I'm concerned," Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney said in an interview. "The system itself is very, very fair. If a player signs a contract, he should live up to it."
Laying Down the Law
Rosenhaus, 38, has been a certified NFL agent since 1988, the year after he graduated from the University of Miami, and says he has negotiated more than $1 billion in contracts for his players. NFL agents are permitted to receive commissions of up to 3 percent of the value of the contracts they negotiate.
He grew up in Miami, and his father was a big Dolphins fan. Both his grandfathers were attorneys, but he wanted to be a sports broadcaster. While in college at Miami, though, he found a way to merge the sports and legal realms and decided after befriending some of the school's football players to become an agent.
When he still was a law student at Duke, he convinced ESPN to televise a set of his contract negotiations with the New Orleans Saints. He entitled his 1997 autobiography, "A Shark Never Sleeps: Wheeling and Dealing With the NFL's Most Ruthless Agent."
He isn't married and has no hobbies that might interfere with his work. He has only two other people working his practice, including his brother Jason. He doesn't even have a secretary.
His burgeoning client list, which is in the neighborhood of 90 players, includes three key Redskins -- safety Sean Taylor, tailback Clinton Portis and wide receiver Santana Moss.
Some agents charge Rosenhaus is stealing clients by promising them he will rip up their contracts and get them more lucrative deals. But Rosenhaus dismisses the accusations as jealous whining.
His public profile has increased dramatically in recent months. Green Bay Packers fans, upset over Rosenhaus's dealings with the team regarding wide receiver Javon Walker, booed Rosenhaus at a charity softball event this summer.
But there was nothing controversial earlier in July when Rosenhaus, a lifeguard one summer while he was in college, used CPR to revive a 4-year-old boy who wasn't breathing and had no pulse after being pulled from a pool at an Orlando hotel. For one day, Rosenhaus said, he got to be like one of the superheroes in his prized comic-book collection.
"It was the happiest day of my life," he said.
Taking on the Eagles
Rosenhaus might need otherworldly powers to get the Eagles to agree to give Owens a new contract. Club officials have rejected Rosenhaus's attempts to rework the seven-year, $48.97 million deal that Owens signed last year. The contract would pay Owens a $6.3 million bonus and $3.25 million salary this season. Agent David Joseph negotiated that deal, but Owens fired Joseph and hired Rosenhaus this offseason.
Rosenhaus says that Owens deserves more at a time other players of equal stature are signing even more staggering deals. Last year, quarterback Peyton Manning signed a seven-year, $98 million contract extension with the Indianapolis Colts that included a record signing bonus of $34.5 million. The top overall choice in the NFL draft in April, quarterback Alex Smith, last week signed a six-year, $49.5 million contract with the San Francisco 49ers that included $24 million in bonus money.
Gene Upshaw, the Hall of Fame offensive lineman who now is the executive director of the NFL Players Association, recalled last week that he received a $25,000 bonus and had a $17,000 salary as a rookie with the Oakland Raiders in 1967. The league's rookie minimum salary now is $230,000; the minimum salary for a 10-year veteran is $765,000. According to the union, last season's average salary among all players was $1.3 million.
Upshaw, as part of the ongoing labor negotiations, is attempting to ensure that the players collectively receive a greater portion of league revenues under the salary cap. Each team's cap is annually based on a percentage of designated league revenues, so players' salaries increase as league revenues increase. With the NFL having agreed in recent months to new TV deals with Fox, CBS, NBC, ESPN and DirecTV worth nearly $4 billion annually beginning in 2006 -- up from about $2.8 billion this season -- some agents predict that players' salaries, particularly those of star players, could double within the next few years, no matter what happens in the labor negotiations.
Still, Upshaw is seeking to include a broader range of league revenues in the pool from which the players are paid. NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, meantime, is trying to coax the team owners into agreeing to a revised revenue-sharing system by which the league's wealthiest franchises would share a greater portion of their locally generated revenues with the less-prosperous clubs. Even with all the money that's going around, it is a time of unrest for the league.
Rosenhaus's view is not as broad. He's concerned, he says, because the sanctity of a contract works only one way in the NFL -- in the team's favor, not the player's. An MLB player who signs a $30 million contract and then suffers a career-ending injury usually ends up with $30 million. But a football player doesn't have the same security. Rosenhaus said he views contracts with guaranteed annual salaries as the "number one issue" for players, but added of the labor negotiations: "I'll leave that up to those gentlemen."
Said Rosenhaus: "In our system, it's so common for a player to get whacked, to get cut. Players have to live with that pressure. When a player outperforms his contract, why is it not okay for him to get a readjustment in his favor? . . . I would love to see a system where more deals are guaranteed or more parts of deals are guaranteed, and where the player has a little more leverage to renegotiate. It's now so tilted in the other direction. The trend has gone against the player."
Upshaw said that Rosenhaus is "just representing his client. . . . He's got to say what he's got to say to get more money for his client."
Agents, Upshaw said, usually are more concerned about securing hefty signing bonuses than guaranteed annual salaries. "There is no prohibition in the collective bargaining agreement that keeps a player or an agent from negotiating a guaranteed contract," he said. "We don't say it can't be done, but there's nothing we can do to make it happen."
The Eagles could attempt to recoup portions of Owens's signing bonus, as well as fine him, if he fails to report to training camp as scheduled today at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. Owens has said publicly that he would report to camp even without a new contract but would be unhappy about it. Rosenhaus has maintained that nothing is certain and even if Owens reports, that doesn't necessarily mean he would stay.
Two other Rosenhaus clients who spent the offseason embroiled in contract disputes with their teams, Walker and Colts running back Edgerrin James, reported to camp on time last week.
"I don't like holding players out," Rosenhaus said. "I have at least 20 players in discussions with teams, and they're not holding out. I just wish I could get the . . . Eagles to play ball with me."