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March 2, 2010

An Agent's Take

Crisis Management

by Joshua Kusnick

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Josh Kusnick is a Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based agent who will periodically write about his experiences representing professional baseball players and media personalities.

Everyone has an idea of what it is that I do. People have a perception of what all agents do. Some people think we're monsters ruining the purity of America's pastime while others don’t know we exist. Just about everything valuable that I have learned in this business has come from good old-fashioned experience. There are certain things that I have learned by people teaching me directly, while there are other things, valuable things, that I have been forced to learn on the fly. One example is crisis management. Unless you have advised someone in a major crisis situation, you wouldn't have any idea. This is not something you learn in school. It is something born from experience.

During the 2009 season, I had a client suspended for failing to comply with the minor-league drug testing program. This was not the first time this player was suspended for this offense and, from my perspective, this could potentially be an atomic bomb to his career. Fans rarely get to see the human impact of things like this but tend of primarily think about the impact they have on their favorite team. There are lives and families at stake, and as an agent, it is my responsibility to make sure that the family and the player are calmed no matter how bad the situation may seem. Think Phil Ivey pushing all in with 7/2 off suit at the final table at Binions. It's that serious, because a young man's career is at stake and, to some degree, so is mine.

To that point, one of the things I see happen behind the scenes all the time is that some agents think they are an autonomous body. Wrong. Without the players, an agent is just a guy. I never forget that. I literally am nobody without my clients. I have no career without my clients. My career is completely codependent on the choices these men make, and I am subject to the whims of their frailty.

When I got news of my player's suspension, I was at a movie theater in Cary, North Carolina. I was in Cary because I was scouting a player on the Canadian Junior National Team who had just recently been drafted by the Dodgers. It was around 7 p.m. when I got the call. Up until that point, I wasn't having all that bad of a day. I got to watch several games at the USA Baseball facility, I had dinner with an old friend from high school, and I finally made my way to the theater so I could get some alone time. Much to my chagrin, the only movie starting at the time I arrived at theatre was Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen. Now I consider myself to be a movie aficionado, and I knew instantly I would lose my movie cool the second I purchased a ticket to see a Michael Bay film. At that point, I didn’t care because, at worst, I would get to watch Megan Fox "act" for a couple of hours and, at best, I would have some awesome childhood memories come flooding back during the film. Sadly, the only flashback I had came about halfway through when I recalled the epic 1986 cartoon Transformers: The Movie. It was a children’s cartoon, and yet at the end of that movie, Optimus Prime, surrounded by his closest friends and family, dies.

Think about that for a moment. Someone had to write that entire scene, dialogue and all, then pitch it to a director, the art department, the producer. Then everyone involved with the movie had to sign off on the idea that killing an animated children’s hero would be a great idea. Then the animators had to draw those scenes in order to give them to the voiceover department so actors could voice a death sequence that could potentially traumatize millions upon millions of children. Who thinks of these things? I can't believe this was Orson Welles' last film. (Really, you can look that up.)

During that daydream, I got the phone call. When you're an agent, your clients have to come above all else. I feel not only an obligation to my players to be available 24 hours a day, but I consider it a privilege. I feel if my clients believe in me enough to trust them with their careers, then I owe it to them to give them every bit of my soul. I will always answer my phone at 3 a.m. The call came and the player was obviously very upset. I have known this player since he was 15 years old. This player comes from a special family with absolutely incredible parents. This is a good kid. Everyone says that about the players they represent, but I know in my heart this is a good kid. This is the kind of kid who loves people and his career. This player always signs autographs before and after games until everyone has one and always says "sir" or "ma'am" when addressing adults. This is a kid who, unfortunately, has a very serious disease.

I have much experience in dealing with addiction because I grew up that way: I had a very close family member go through the pain and suffering of addiction. Addiction is not a choice. Addiction is very much a disease and, fortunately for this player, he had an agent who was quite sympathetic to his situation. Anger and disappointment I would imagine is the first reaction most people would have in a situation like this. However, I felt nothing but compassion. I knew I would be able to help his career and rehabilitate his life if he let me. So the first phone call came from him. The second phone call came from his mother. We talked, I listened, and I promised her I would do everything in my power to help this situation. I simply told her to trust me and let me do my job. Then I got to work.

The first two phone calls I made were to the two beat writers who cover the player's organization. I broke the news to them immediately because I do not believe in hiding. I believe genuine and absolute contrition is the only path to salvation. I gave quotes to both writers and promised them that the player would be made available, uncoached and totally unplugged, when he was ready to speak. The first step in repairing a damaged image is to apologize, but only if it is sincere. The second step in this process is finding a place for the player to get help for his problem, and that was done with the help of the parent club. Additionally, I had this player contact my family member who was a recovering addict in hopes that somehow that would help him get through his struggles. During the offseason, this player got regular job working for a landscaping business and in a restaurant. I think, in addition to his therapy, working a "normal" job helped put in perspective how lucky he was to be a professional athlete. After his rehabilitation was finished, one final interview was granted before the start of spring training that hopefully answered any lingering questions about the suspension and the problems the player had with addiction. The goal of this interview was to curtail any questions any reporters would have during the season because this absolutely cannot be allowed to be a distraction.

So this is the game plan when things go awry: Get everyone calm, contact the media and apologize, get help, apologize even more, and live up to the promises you have made. It doesn’t take dangerous gypsy magic to rehabilitate an image, just genuine contrition and the desire to right your life. So, as of now, all is well in the universe and the player is looking ahead to 2010 with hope for the first time in a very long time.

I wanted to write about crisis management, because I was disappointed in what I saw from Tiger Woods when he recently apologized for his infidelity. I don’t think anybody with a pulse could have been surprised at the hilariously scripted and staged atmosphere at the press conference. However, this is the kind of ignorance we've come to expect from the cauldron of audacity that is celebrity these days. It was arrogance at its purest. I honestly felt like I was watching the last scene in The Departed, where Matt Damon comes home holding his bag of groceries, and is greeted by Mark Wahlberg wearing nothing but scrubs and Wonderbread bags on his feet. Tiger had the exact same look on his face the entire press conference that Damon had right before the end, and you could sense the entire time that Tiger was just waiting to say "OK" so that the credits would start rolling. You almost expected a CGI mouse to come to the podium and start gnawing on a piece of cheese.

My client is not Tiger Woods, but I do feel he had an obligation to be honest with everyone, including the public, about his transgressions. When you make the decision to work in show business (because that’s what professional sports are), you are subject to different things that most people will ever experience. Fame, money and, in cases of indiscretion, total public embarrassment. It comes with the territory, and the territory isn’t cheap. I know my client is on the right path, and I will stand by his side until he tells me not to because, after all, I am always going to be subject to the whims of his frailty.

The author can be reached at JoshuaKusnick@aol.com and his blog can be found here.

Related Content:  The Who,  Addiction,  The Call-up

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