Le’Veon Bell’s agent knows the struggle
Adisa Bakari teaches his NFL clients to ‘understand your worth’
The panorama of photographs and books in Adisa Bakari’s office suite forms a vivid “blackdrop” for one of the most unprecedented contract negotiations in NFL history.
Jesse Owens blasts off the starting line. Wilma Rudolph strains with effort. John Carlos and Tommie Smith protest at the 1968 Games. Muhammad Ali points a massive fist. The dozens of books include several on the theme of exploited black labor, such as Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II and Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete.
“The history is rich,” said Bakari. “It’s a history of perseverance. It’s a history of courage. It’s a history of operating on faith. It’s a history of self-determination and belief in oneself. It’s emboldening, it’s strengthening, it’s empowering, and when our clients come to the office, I want them to feel those things.”
Bakari represents Le’Veon Bell, the 26-year-old Pittsburgh Steelers running back whose contract dispute is challenging the balance of power between athletes and team owners.
Over his five NFL seasons, all in Pittsburgh, Bell has averaged 128.9 yards from scrimmage per game, the best since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger. He’s an every-down back and the Steelers’ second-leading receiver. His 2,215 yards from scrimmage in 2014 is a franchise record. Bakari calls Bell a once-in-a-generation player, and he has a thick packet of statistics comparing him to all-time greats such as Walter Payton, Eric Dickerson and Emmitt Smith.
“One of the things we try to instill in our clients from the very beginning is understanding their value on and off the field,” Bakari said. “Understanding your worth, understanding your value and being unapologetic about pursuing it.”
Bell’s rookie deal paid him $4 million over his first four seasons. Running backs wear out quicker than the grass at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field, so when Bell’s first contract expired after the 2016 season, he sought more than one season’s worth of guaranteed money. The Steelers, however, are one of the few franchises that don’t guarantee veteran contracts past one year.
More importantly, as a prolific pass-catcher, Bell refuses to be limited by the traditional pay scale for running backs. He believes he should be paid a premium for his status as an “elite offensive weapon” — something that no NFL team has done.
“He’s amassed records and statistics that are unparalleled,” Bakari said. “Why should not his compensation be unparalleled?”
Bell and the Steelers were unable to reach an agreement before the 2017 season, so the rules required him to receive a one-year “franchise tag” contract worth $12.1 million, an average of the top salaries at his position. Bell refused to attend training camp and reported just before the first game of the 2017 season. This summer, the two sides again could not reach an agreement. The Steelers “franchised” Bell again, for a salary of $14.5 million.
Bell responded by upping the ante.
He did not show up for training camp — or the first six games of the season, which cost him $855,000 in salary for each missed game. He has said he planned to report to the team this week, but he had not arrived on Monday. His strategy was to preserve his health by limiting his games and sign with another team next season for enough guaranteed money to recoup the six game checks, totaling $5.1 million, that he left on the table in Pittsburgh.
Clearly, Bell has a strong idea of his worth.
“It’s certainly an easy intellectual concept to embrace,” Bakari said. “It’s difficult when you’re dealing with the realities of life.”
Bakari, 45, grew up in Washington, D.C., and played safety at Delaware State, a historically black school that competes in the Football Championship Subdivision. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin Law School, practiced as an executive compensation lawyer and sports attorney, then founded The Sports & Entertainment Group (TSEG) in 2016. Along with his partner, Jeff Whitney, Bakari represents 43 NFL athletes.
Bakari gives a copy of Forty Million Dollar Slaves to every rookie who signs with his agency. A classic by Undefeated writer-at-large William C. Rhoden, the book argues that despite their high salaries, black athletes remain trapped on figurative plantations controlled by whites, with little influence or power in the multibillion-dollar industries built on black labor. The book urges athletes to retain “a sense of responsibility to the legacy of struggle that made possible this generation’s phenomenal material success.”
That struggle lives on the walls of Bakari’s office in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington.
“Do I go into counseling my clients with a ‘black agenda’ consciously in mind? Of course not,” Bakari said. “I don’t force upon my clients my worldview on anything. That’s not my job. My job is to help my clients make informed business decisions.
“Now, my analysis of things certainly is shaped by the unique history of African-Americans. My analysis of the economics of the NFL certainly are shaped by the historical experience of black athletes and the mistreatment of black athletes. So is that history interwoven in my thought process? Of course.”
Some perceive Bell and Bakari as greedy or foolish. Bell was suspended the first two games of the 2015 season for a marijuana arrest and the first three games in 2016 for missing a drug test. Other teams could decline to open their wallets because they don’t want Bell’s holdout to set a precedent. Even some of his own teammates have said they don’t understand his strategy.
That hasn’t stopped Bell from demanding a salary that would alter the NFL system of paying athletes according to position rather than production. Many players have held out, but few if any have forfeited salary from a Super Bowl contender to change the way players are compensated.
Bell told ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler that he is seeking “strictly my value to the team.”
“I’ve gotta take this stand,” Bell said. “Knowing my worth and knowing I can tear a ligament or get surgery at any time, I knew I couldn’t play 16 games with 400 or more touches.”
Bell’s calculation of his worth seemed to be validated by what happened after he refused to report to training camp this summer. Running backs David Johnson and Todd Gurley signed contracts with guarantees of between $31 million and $45 million. Bell turned down a deal from the Steelers that guaranteed only $17 million.
“It’s always interesting to me when players make a hard business stance they are vilified, and deemed to be greedy and irrational and whatever, and there’s a little tinge I think associated with black players doing it,” Bakari said. “It just sounds different when I hear some of the critiques. It feels different. I’m not saying that is definitely the case, but you very rarely hear [the critiques] when the Tom Bradys or Aaron Rodgers of the world take a very hard stance as it relates to their value.”
Bakari’s clients have included two retired All-Pro running backs, Matt Forte and Maurice Jones-Drew, who both said that reading Forty Million Dollar Slaves was important in their careers.
“Adisa makes sure you’re not being used. That’s a real agent,” said Jones-Drew. “Some people see you as a little black boy, you shouldn’t be handling this. I’m going to make sure that when you step to the table, you better come correct.”
Forte now passes on Bakari’s wisdom to the young people involved with his charitable foundation: “Adisa relayed the message to us that as young black men, we need to know who we are, on and especially off the field. Unfortunately, today lots of young black men and women, they look at stuff in the media and may devalue themselves or think that being black is bad. … My big pitch to my kids in my foundation is to get to know who you are and your value. It would be a tragedy to live your whole life and not know what you were put on this earth for.”
I asked Bakari if it was a coincidence that a black agent and a young black player are the ones challenging the NFL’s concept of player value.
“There are no coincidences, at least as I see it,” Bakari replied. “But I will say that certainly I am a product of my experience. … Those experiences are unique, in part, because of my heritage and my heritage in this country. To suggest that that doesn’t influence my analysis of things would belie reality.
“No matter what, you have to understand your value at all times. And you have to, quite frankly, fight to secure that value.”