Thursdays with Professor SteinbergApril 11, 2012: 5:00 AM ET
Sports agent legend Leigh Steinberg's sports law class at the University of California Irvine is unlike any other law school course. Just as the students knew it would be.
By Daniel Roberts, reporter
FORTUNE -- On a Thursday in late February -- the seventh meeting of the class so far -- Leigh Steinberg shows up to teach his sports law lecture at the UC Irvine, but not before posing, outside the classroom, for a photographer from the local newspaper. Today, he has invited an old friend from Berkeley, the lively Fox Sports executive Robert Hacker, to speak to the class about the big business of televised sports.
The preface he makes feels unavoidable, and uncomfortable. After telling the students, apropos of nothing, that he spent five hours in a bankruptcy hearing this week, he declares, "All apples will be graciously accepted." The students don't laugh, and instead exchange some awkward glances. And yet it's clear that the 30 present are here for the professor, and for yarns like these. It certainly isn't because they all want to be sports agents. When Hacker asks, at one point in his hour-and-a-half talk, "How many of you actually want to go into sports or entertainment law?" only three hands go up. Steinberg, who spends Hacker's presentation seated on a stool at the front, spitting tobacco juice into an empty soda can, later predicts that will change: "Give me seven more weeks with them."
The question of their actual interest in sports law isn't the only pregnant silence that results from Hacker's otherwise highly entertaining, animated talk. At one point, he says to the class, "I have great clients. Sure, I have some asshole clients, including one who filed for bankruptcy and beat me for some fees, but what can you do." Two female students exchange a look; it's difficult not to think of Steinberg's own bankruptcy proceedings, which, after all, he just brought up a few minutes before.
But Steinberg is no has-been in the eyes of his students. One gung-ho pupil in the back of the hall, Justin Greely, already works as Steinberg's intern and assistant, a gig he is clearly elated to have landed. Tiffany Full, a student in the class and Greely's roommate, opens up her email at one point to check out prototypes Greely has sent her for his new business card. The mockup reads: "Jr. Agent, Steinberg Sports & Entertainment."
Steinberg also uses Greely to help him collect assignments and map out lesson plans; a couple hours before the class, he phoned Greely from his home and asked the young man's thoughts on what Steinberg should say, or whom he should invite as a guest, for the next week's class, which will focus on marketing and social media.
Steinberg is laid back about his role, not just with the responsibilities he allows Greely to hold, but also his demeanor during the class. As if the lip full of tobacco doesn't make it clear enough, he occasionally makes affectionate jokes. When Hacker says, discussing his media diet, "I'm an old-school guy, I read two newspapers every day; those still exist, they're on something called paper," Steinberg interrupts the laughter to say: "Don't confuse my class."
He also brings serious advice to the table. After Hacker finishes his piece, Steinberg uses his friend as an example to tell the students: "I've told you over and over again, if you have an unquenchable passion for the field you're in, it's not work." Then again, he's careful to caution them that it won't be easy: "Don't take my life as normal," he warns. "Unless you're going to have the biggest star in the world come out of the draft and sign with you, you're going to have to come at it another way."
This particular class, especially after Hacker's lecture about the ramifications and legal difficulties of working with athletes, segues naturally into news items of recent import. In discussing damage control, Steinberg notes, "Brand is so critical, because image is indelible," leading a young man to raise his hand and mention the Tiger Woods scandal. Steinberg says: "I don't know if there is sex addiction or not. I wouldn't dispute it if someone said they have it, because they're going through pain and suffering, but it's not well studied. Most men would say, 'what do you mean, sex addiction? He just got as much as he could, wouldn't anyone?'" This one does get big laughs from the audience, and Steinberg, after all, has always loved having an audience.
Lately, he's also become an audience for a host of emails, perhaps even more bizarre than those he used to receive at the height of his glory. After class, he flips through some pitches from potential clients, or from parents of young athletes, and sees one that reads: "Saw you on HBO and I'm looking to tell you all about my business plan for SEXYFOOTBALL and SEXYFUTBOL!" Steinberg quickly moves on to the next one. He's looking to get involved with new recruits and exciting business opportunities, but this one may not be a perfect fit, even for Irvine's nuttiest professor.