How NFL agents plan to prevent the next draft-night bong video fiasco

The Washington Post

They were in a bowling alley in central Florida, where at least a few dreams come true, when suddenly the big screens became a little less interesting.

Leigh Steinberg is one of the most famous NFL agents in the game, and on draft night last year, he was with Paxton Lynch, the former University of Memphis quarterback and a projected first-round pick in 2016. The party was on, the lanes were buzzing, and then right as the draft broadcast was beginning, someone mentioned Laremy Tunsil, of all people.

And there it was: Being shared on social media, at the worst possible time, was a video of Tunsil, the University of Mississippi offensive lineman — and a player projected to be taken in the top five — wearing a gas mask and smoking from the bong attached to it. Tunsil's Instagram page also had compromising information posted to it, and in a news conference later, Tunsil — still rattled but attempting to project calm and transparency — essentially admitted to receiving money from Ole Miss administrators, a violation of NCAA rules.

Anyway, Steinberg knew almost immediately: This was no accident. Someone had, by hacking into Tunsil's verified Twitter account, executed a timed attack on the 22-year-old lineman and his future.

"This is supposed to be the most ecstatic day, sports-wise that he's had so far," Steinberg recently recalled thinking. "And, you know, it's embarrassing. The whole concept of shaming someone - you're a little young to bring down the dogs of hell on someone."

In the year since Tunsil's nightmare evening on the NFL's biggest offseason stage, a few teams succumbing to panic and passing on the highest-graded blocker in the draft, agents' in-the-moment empathy has turned to old-fashioned survivalist practicality. The Tunsil episode became, to every agent but Tunsil's own, a free refresher in how to thoroughly vet potential clients and whatever might be in their pasts and on the social media feeds that largely have long memories.

"Maybe it's better to be lucky than smart," said Ken Harris, one of the nearly half-dozen NFL agents interviewed for this story. "The awareness factor for me now is through the roof."

Steinberg said he personally combed through the social media accounts of his seven draft-eligible clients. He implored them during Steinberg's first meeting to come clean about anything that could bite them before draft night or, worse, during it. Anything: from something as obvious as smoking from a bong-mask to something as forgettable as a few edgy song lyrics.

"And if there is," Steinberg said, "to do one of two things: Either to be ready to respond to that in meetings with teams or potentially bring it out ourselves before it can be brought out."

Steinberg compared the process to the vetting of a high-profile political candidate; a top draft pick is only as desirable as the opposition research — and the subsequent maneuvering — allows him to be.

"We don't throw young men on the trash heap of history for one mistake," he said, "but the key is whether it was a learning experience."

If there is potentially damaging information buried somewhere on the Internet, then the agent has to decide how to play it. Peter Schaffer, the agent whose clients include the controversial former Oklahoma running back Joe Mixon, said he likes to know about the fissures in his clients' online reputations - so, if it's not too late, he can delete them.

"If no one has captured it, there's really nothing that can happen," said Schaffer, who compared being an agent to parenting, with all manner of strategy being deployed. "You never know for sure if it was captured, but at that point you can take it down."

Other agents assume that any compromising post has, by someone at some point, been screengrabbed for later - and potentially damaging — deployment.

"How do you hide? Why do you hide? What's the point?" said the agent David Canter, who added that he works as his own investigator and researcher. "Because if you want to be honest and you want to be successful for the long-term, the players who are those guys in the NFL are honest."

Steinberg, for his part, said he prefers the "own-it" approach; if there's something there, prepare to discuss it in interviews with team officials and, he said, take responsibility and vow to never repeat the mistake (or mistakes).

Rule one in damage control," he said, "is make sure that you've wrapped your arms around all the facts."

He continued.

"Rather than be surprised and, worst-case scenario, have it occur during the draft," Steinberg said, "it's much better to have whatever might exist come out early in the process with an explanation."

Several agents said they avoid signing clients with problematic histories, the headaches not worth the standard 3 percent commission from NFL contracts. But others don't seem to mind the risks, especially if a player is expected to be taken at the top of the first round.

In the weeks before last year's draft, Tunsil had been projected to be taken as high as the No. 2 overall pick and an almost certainty to be selected in the top five. After the damage was done on Tunsil's social feeds — the video on Twitter and, on Instagram, screenshots of text messages between Tunsil and an Ole Miss administrator discussing what appeared to be impermissible benefits — the lineman fell out of the top 10. Miami eventually selected Tunsil with the 13th pick, and the player went on to start 14 games for the Dolphins as a rookie.

Before all that, though, cameras zoomed in on his blank face as the picks came and went without his name being called. "The lonely odyssey of the falling draft pick," Steinberg would call it later, and though it made for dramatic television, as every pick was made, Tunsil was losing millions.

According to an industry source with access to specific contract numbers, No. 2 pick Carson Wentz received a $17.6 million signing bonus as part of a $26.6 million total package with the Philadelphia Eagles. Jalen Ramsey, the cornerback chosen at No. 5 overall, signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars for a $15 million bonus and a total contract of $23.35 million.

The Dolphins signed Tunsil to a contract that included a $7.62 million bonus and a total deal worth $12.45 million, the source said. As teams were scared off by the contents of Tunsil's social media posts and other players heard their names called, every draft slot that passed cost Tunsil about $1 million in bonus money and total contract value.

And for every million dollars Tunsil lost, his agent, Jimmy Sexton, lost upward of $30,000. Sexton did not respond to emails requesting an interview for this story.

It was, in short, a tough night for Team Tunsil, and his experience has become something of a cautionary tale in the 12 months since. Steinberg, whose top client Lynch would celebrate in that bowling alley after Denver selected him toward the end of the first round, smiled as his client's dream came true.

But Steinberg couldn't help thinking about Tunsil and how differently it all could've been handled.

"Part of my job is to create enough trust and peel back the layers of the onion so that someone's comfortable that we're doing this," said Steinberg, who represents former Texas Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes, among others. "For their own good, we're going to craft the best approach to it.

"But this has got to come out in January, when you start with a player."

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