For nearly two decades, sports agent Josh Luchs pursued the biggest stars in college football, hoping to land them as clients before each year’s NFL draft.
Beginning as a teen, Luchs learned early on that many of the most sought-after players chose their agents based on money, cars and other illegal benefits. So he fell in line, arranging payments for players and working efficiently within the murky gray areas in which many agents operate.
Find more new and notable nonfiction at Kirkus.
In his new book, Illegal Procedure—which we called a “troubling, entertaining indictment of the hypocrisy of big-time sports”—Luchs exposes the often-shady practices of NFL agents, many of whom will do nearly anything to land a prized prospect. Now a commercial real-estate agent, the author reflects on his many years in the business and shares his thoughts on the game, his experiences with players and the possibility of instituting a system in which player loans are legal.
Do you think that most college football fans already know most of the practices you describe in the book, but turn a blind eye because they’re devoted fans?
I think that’s a fair statement. I think they stop turning a blind eye to it when they’re caught in a position where their alma mater is sanctioned or one of their star players is suspended. They certainly want to know about it then. What I’m trying to do is make people aware from my past. I’d rather do that than run from it.
Why did you stay in it for so long?
I think about that a lot. I grew up in that business. I started with the Raiders at 16 years old and being a sports agent at some point became who I was in addition to what I did. It became a huge part of my identity. It’s really easy to get intoxicated with the perks that come along with representing big-time athletes.
I found myself falling into this destructive pattern, where I convinced myself that it was only a matter of time before I uncovered that big fish, that career-changing client in football, like I’d seen happen in basketball with [NBA star] Shaquille O’Neal and [his agent] Leonard Armato…or most recently, the latest lottery ticket, in [New York Knicks guard] Jeremy Lin, and how he might be for Roger Montgomery, assuming he can fend off the sharks—and I assure you that they’re circling.
As far as the ethical question, why did I stay in it? Well, good judgment comes from bad experience. I’m not the same person at 42 that I was at 22. I see the world differently.
For you, who were some of those big-fish clients that got away? In the book you mention [former No. 2 overall NFL draft pick] Ryan Leaf…
Ryan Leaf…not only was it devastating for me from a career perspective, it was a very difficult time for me personally, having buried both my parents seven months apart, that year as well. That loss, coupled with this business experience, really did leave me to evaluate the direction that I was going and take a closer look at the industry and where that was heading. I wanted to change along with the industry.
So I sought out somebody at the time I believed to be a more reputable, more substantial agent who was doing things more by the book. But at the end of the day, I found out that, even though he wasn’t paying players money, there are a lot of ways you can go about violating the rules if you’re inclined to do so.
You write that agents who say that they haven’t cheated are lying. Is that true?
I’m not trying to indict any one group in particular. In fact, a lot of the scandals that hit college football over the last couple years had nothing to do with sports agents. It was boosters or coaches or others; most of them had nothing to do with sports agents.
The [NCAA and NFL] rules are written, I’d argue almost designed, to be vague and are at best selectively enforced. So between the unenforced state and federal laws, agents are able to operate within gray areas without repercussions.
I like your idea about agents being able to make legal loans to players, mainly because it at least addresses the problem head-on and provides a measure of transparency. You say it won’t fly in the short run. What about in 10 to 15 years?
I think the [NCAA] member institutions would have to be almost insane at this point not to consider it. It reminds me of the Einstein quote about the definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.
Players have been taking money from agents for decades, and agents have been providing loans or benefits or things of value for long before I got in the business in 1990. Nobody’s ever been able to stop it, and I seriously doubt that they will ever be able to stop it, anytime in the foreseeable future. So why not protect everybody in the transaction?
It’s about bringing the practice out of the shadows and into the light—approving agent lenders with universal forms and nonrecourse terms. Here’s the key: The NCAA rules are like 1920s Prohibition. As long as you have Prohibition, you’re going to have bootleggers. The way it’s going now, it’s only a matter of time before a player stiffs the wrong guy, and winds up harassed, maybe injured, and God forbid, dead somewhere. It’s ugly. Is that what it’s going to take for people to get serious about this?
Did all these experience sour you on football? Are you still a fan?
I’m just starting to enjoy NFL football again. Most people see the game, and they see the jersey numbers and the player’s name on the back. For years, while I was recruiting against other agents, all I’d see on the back of the jersey were the agents that they selected.
I can’t watch college football anymore. I haven’t watched a college football game in more than three years, start to finish. I just can’t. I still find myself watching a player and thinking, how can I get to him? It’s almost like an addict. I don’t want to slip back into that destructive pattern, so I try my best to avoid it.
Eric Liebetrau is managing editor and nonfiction editor of Kirkus Reviews.