• Tech

Agent of Agitation

4 minute read
Ta-Nehisi Paul Coates/Miami

Philadelphia Eagles wide reciever Terrell Owens and his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, stepped in front of a battery of cameras last week, intent on repairing the player’s shattered relationship with his team. “I’m a fighter. I’ve always been, and I’ll always be,” said Owens. “I fight for what I think is right. In doing so, I alienated a lot of my fans and my teammates.” Owens, arguably the best receiver in football, had spent much of the season attacking the play of the Eagles’ star quarterback, Donovan McNabb, and dissing management for refusing to redo the seven-year, $49 million contract that Owens signed last year. The fed-up Eagles effectively fired him, so Owens was speaking to the media, trying to apologize his way back.

Then Rosenhaus took over. The agent looked tired. Annoyed. He hectored the assembled media. He’d bark, “Next question!” when he didn’t like the line of inquiry. “Let me assure you,” Rosenhaus said, “[Owens] will be back playing. He will be dominant.”

Rosenhaus knows all about domination. He is probably the most powerful agent in the NFL, with more than 80 active clients, several of them Pro-Bowlers. He is certainly the most theatrical. “That was the Drew Rosenhaus press conference,” cracked rival agent Mark Lepselter. “Featuring Terrell Owens.”

It irks other agents that Rosenhaus is the brash public face of the business. He titled his autobiography A Shark Never Sleeps. The first time he ever negotiated a contract, he brought an ESPN camera crew with him. This summer he was booed at a charity softball game. But Rosenhaus wins clients because he styles himself as a player’s advocate. NFL teams routinely cut players for underperformance, injury or to chop costs. Rosenhaus turns the tables and demands renegotiations when a player overperforms. “The teams are allowed to ask a guy to take a pay cut or can just cut him,” says Rosenhaus. “Why is it a problem for a guy to say, ‘I outplayed my contract. I’d like a raise’? In some ways, Rosenhaus’ success is linked to the NFL’s salary cap, which offers little security to the players. Pro football prides itself on being the ultimate team game, but Rosenhaus says that idea should cut both ways.

The talented (just ask him) Owens was lauded by fans and the media after playing while hurt in last year’s Super Bowl. Then he hired Rosenhaus, who demanded a new contract–in a very public way. Usually agents prefer to negotiate behind closed doors; Rosenhaus and Owens went directly to the airwaves. “If Terrell overperforms, he should be able to upgrade,” says David Cornwell, a former attorney for the NFL. “But how you go about doing this is key. Drew’s strategy has created this huge issue with T.O.’s teammates and organization.” Cornwell says Rosenhaus should have advised Owens to stop reminding the world of his superstar status.

You won’t hear much complaint from Rosenhaus’ clients, however. “You got a guy that basically sacrifices his personal life for his clients,” says the Chicago Bears’ Adewale Ogunleye. “He gives everybody the first-class treatment.” And that often means taking on the owners on behalf of his players.

Rosenhaus’ mercenary approach has earned the enmity of rivals. “If players were women, he’d be a pimp,” says David Ware, who left the business in part, he says, because Rosenhaus routinely poached his clients.

Despite such criticism, Rosenhaus says he wouldn’t change a thing about his tactics. “There’s never anything productive in looking back,” he says. “I can assure you that at the end of the day, both Terrell and I will be fine.” Just as long as he finds a team for Owens to play on.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com