Concussions are “a ticking time bomb,” said sports agent Leigh Steinberg, guest speaker of Laguna Beach Rotary Club last Friday. That bomb exploded last month when former NFL legend Junior Seau, reportedly suffering from depression fueled by countless blows to the head over a 20-year career, committed suicide. That tragedy spotlighted what Steinberg has been trying to illuminate for nearly two decades.
Steinberg first witnessed the affects of a concussion after the 1994 NFC title game between the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers. The agent to both starting quarterbacks, Steinberg first paid a visit to the loser’s locker room to console the 49er’s Steve Young. He then went to the hospital, where the Cowboy’s Troy Aikman was recovering from a hard hit that had knocked him out of the game in the third quarter with Dallas leading 28-7.
When the still woozy quarterback asked his agent why he was in the hospital, Steinberg told him. When he asked how well he had played. Steinberg gave him a quick summary of his performance. “What does that mean?” Aikman asked. “It means you’re going to the Super Bowl,” Steinberg replied.
When Aikman proceeded to ask Steinberg the same questions two more times during the next half hour, he realized the severity of an endemic problem in contact sports that no one wanted to admit, especially athletes. “They’re taught in Little League and Pop Warner to ignore pain and to be stoic, and long-term health is secondary,” Steinberg said.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 300,000 sports-related concussions result in loss of consciousness annually. Since loss of consciousness is thought to occur in less than 10 percent of concussions,the CDC estimate is likely much lower than the overall total. “It’s an undiagnosed epidemic,” according to Steinberg.
A pioneer in sports management, the Newport Beach-based agent has represented the overall number one pick in the NFL draft a record eight times, the first coming in 1975. Then, fresh out of law school, he negotiated a deal with the Atlanta Falcons that made Steve Bartkowski the highest paid rookie ever. “That was my first act as a lawyer,” Steinberg said.
Since then, Steinberg has leveraged his clients’ popularity for charitable causes, founding Kicks for Critters with San Diego placekicker Rolf Benirschke, for example. He also put his theory that “athletes can be role models and trigger positive social behavior” to the test when client and then heavy weight champ Lennox Lewis condemned domestic violence in a public service announcement, saying “real men don’t hit women.”
The lawyer turned agent reached the top of his game guiding the world’s best athletes to the top of theirs. But when director Cameron Crowe asked to shadow Steinberg to glean inspiration for the film, “Jerry Maguire,” it was almost as if the agent overshadowed the player and even the game.
Life at the top proved fleeting, as divorce and his father’s death sent Steinberg over the edge of an alcohol-filled abyss. He finally hit bottom in March of 2010. “That was 804 days ago,” Steinberg recalls with the clarity of a 12-step veteran.
Steinberg describes his career as “trying to make a difference.” But “between family, and changing the world, and dominating sports, I really took no time for myself,” he said.
Coming off a recent bankruptcy, Steinberg has re-dedicated himself to building a new life and career “more mindful of balance,” he said.
His new venture, Steinberg Sports and Entertainment, focuses on socially conscious initiatives, including concussion awareness and prevention. With the support of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, concerned coaches, players and their families, Steinberg is beginning to see “the Berlin wall of denial” start to fall, as more light is shed on the long-term affects of concussions.
It’s one thing for a player to retire with aches and pains that make it difficult to bend over and pick up his child, Steinberg said. “It’s an entirely different thing to not recognize your child.”