Representation Matters

Why are We So Obsessed With Elite Sports Agents?

Our first instance of Elite Sports Agent as cultural hero came in 1996. Jerry Maguire, Tom Cruise in his prime, screamed at a half-naked Cuba Gooding, Jr. in the locker room.

“I am out here for you!” he bellowed. “You don’t know what it’s like to be me, out here for you. It is an up-at-dawn, pride-swallowing siege!”

 

Truly, the heroes of Stalingrad, Guadalcanal, and Kirkuk had nothing on this Elite Sports Agent, who crawled across broken glass to get his client some extra revenue. Jerry Maguire gave us more quotable clichés than most movies in history: “Help me help you,” “You complete me,” You had me at hello,” and, most importantly, “Show me the money!” But he also established the Elite Sports Agent, the most durable cliché of all.

Before Jerry Maguire, sports movies tended to focus on, you know, the athletes who played sports. Pride of the Yankees, Brian’s Song, Chariots of Fire, Rocky, and The Natural, to name just a few, told stories of men who sacrificed everything to achieve their dreams, without help from slick jerks with a deep list of media contacts. The 1970s brought us cynical sports movies like North Dallas Forty and Slap Shot that tore back the thin veneer of the jock-weeper genre. And then you have the baseball comedies, like Major League, A League Of Their Own, and, of course, the original Bad News Bears. These movies all had one thing in common, though. They featured heroes who played sports, or at least managed games.  But they rarely focused on management.

Then came Jerry Maguire, and suddenly all that mattered in sports was contract day.

Making Their Dreams Come True

HBO’s Arliss Michaels, or Arli$$, as the show’s title called him, entered our culture next. Robert Wuhl, as Arliss, said in the opening credits of this lightly-satirical sitcom, “athletes are our last waltz, and my job is to make their dream come true.” Then Arliss’ Trumpian autobiography, “The Art of the Sports SuperAgent” spun into view, followed by a dinky musical montage of him schmoozing Shaq and Kobe and Derek Jeter and Dan Marino and whoever.

It’s hard to get too annoyed by good old Arliss. Robert Wuhl clearly saw the ridiculousness of modern sports culture, obsessed with the Elite Sports Agent. The show contains plenty of scenes of him getting smoked out by Jimmy Johnson or ESPN reporters. He constantly bumbles into moronic situations with players who don’t really need his help. Wuhl saw what was happening and made fun of it for six seasons, before having a show on HBO was particularly prestigious.

But Arli$$ also set the Elite Sports Agent tone. Athlete cameos swamped his show, maybe even setting some sort of record. The Athlete Cameo goes back a long way. Babe Ruth appeared in a 1928 Harold Lloyd movie. Joe Namath was on The Brady Bunch. And the genre really should have ended with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Airplane! But with the rise of Elite Sports Agent fiction, suddenly the athlete existed not to promote him or herself. They exist to support the real star, the man who gets shown the money.

In the later seasons of Entourage, Ari Gold opens a sports division of his agency, clearing the way for an obnoxious wave of athlete cameos. The satire gets lost as it becomes clear that Kevin Garnett or Tom Brady or whoever doesn’t matter, because they’re all worshipping at the Elite Sports Agent temple. The athlete promotes their brand cheaply and perpetuates the cultural myth. Meanwhile, Turtle tries desperately to get the football men to endorse his tequila. And maybe they will because of his connection to the Elite Sports Agent.

Then along comes Ballers, also on HBO. Kind of the anti-Arli$$, Ballers imagines a world where the Elite Sports Agents are infallible gods, even if they are Rob Corrdry. In 1996, an Elite Sports Agent on TV was a schlubby Jew played by Robert Wuhl. Then he transforms into THE ROCK, a God among men. The Rock’s Spencer Strasmore cruises Miami somewhat neurotically, but always in a smooth ride. He nobly gets his clients what they want and somehow doesn’t contract irreversible brain damage despite having been an NFL linebacker for a decade. In our world, The Elite Sports Agent walks on water and negotiates away our sins.

Represented By A Brother

Spike Lee, a smarter person than anyone else who’s made Elite Sports Agent fiction, recognized the truth about these types. They’re actually villains. Dom Pagnotti, the unctuous lizard perfectly played by Al Palagonia in 1998’s He Got Game, tells Jesus Shuttlesworth, played by Ray Allen but not actually Ray Allen, “I’m the best at what I do.” Along with a contract, Dom presents Jesus a platinum and diamond Rolex, “the best you can buy. Gold, forget about it. Silver, forget about it. You have platinum and diamonds. That’s like having speed and power in the NBA.” When Jesus says he wants a “brother” to represent him, Dom says “when it comes to business, the only color that matters is green.” And as Jesus continues to dither, Dom Pagnotti manipulates Jesus’ girlfriend so Dom can get what Dom wants. It is an up-at-dawn, pride-swallowing siege.

 

Dom is clearly the villain in this morality play. But somewhere along the line, our culture lost the message that the Elite Sports Agent is a figure to be feared, not revered. In fact, in the NBA 2K16 video game’s “Career Mode,” players don’t have a choice about whether or not a brother will represent them. The game assigns them Dom Pagnotti, voiced by the same actor, without irony. It’s the most heroic way to live your life. Jim Halpert from the Office somehow becomes an Elite Sports Agent in the show’s final few seasons. He then moves his family to Austin, Texas, a town without a professional sports team, to live the Elite Sports Agent dream.

But slippery white guys no longer dominate the Elite Sports Agent field, at least on the screen. The Rock represents black football players as an Elite Sports Agent who’s a quarter black and half Samoan himself. In the recently-released What Men Want, apparently men want, or at least don’t mind, being represented by a black female Elite Sports Agent played by Taraji P. Henson. 

In High Flying Bird, the new Steven Soderbergh movie now playing on Netflix, the Elite Sports Agent movie breaks new ground of solipsism and self-regard. Ray Burke, an Elite Sports Agent played by André Holland, hails from the rough precincts of rural Mississippi. As usual, the young men he represents don’t know what it’s like to be him, out there for them.

High Flying Bird somehow manages to be a basketball movie that contains basically no scenes of anyone playing basketball. In the script’s fairly-realistic fantasy premise, the NBA’s greedy owners have locked out the players, leaving Ray’s star client, the number-one draft pick, without an income, or much to do. The lack of hoops probably has to do with the fact that Soderbergh shot the movie entirely on iPhone cameras. But it also has to do with the fact that he obviously doesn’t care about basketball, even if his characters do. Instead, he focuses on endless double-crossing mumblecore negotiations, a Danny Ocean-style heist without the diamonds.

André Holland as Ray Burke in High Flying Bird, directed by Steven Soderbergh.
Photo by Peter Andrews

While the film depicts Eric Scott, the draft pick, with at least some sympathy, it’s pretty obvious who the real hero is:  The Elite Sports Agent, the smartest guy in the room. Without giving too much away, not only does Ray the agent get his client what his client deserves, he also saves the entire NBA. He does so with unimpeachable integrity, and from a radical perspective of black self-empowerment. High Flying Bird contains, despite its off-putting folk-music soundtrack, some pretty interesting ideas about athletes-as-commodities. What would the league look like, the movie wonders, if black people had always been in charge?

Good question, but Soderbergh doesn’t have the means to depict alternate reality. He shoots on a budget of seven dollars a day to make a pretentious point about Content. A few basketball scenes might have been nice. But that was never the point. Soderbergh wants to elevate the Elite Sports Agent to a new plateau. Now we have to deal with the Elite Sports Agent not only as some sort of capitalist demigod, but also as a hero of the revolution.

You want to know what it’s really like to be an Elite Sports Agent? Watch a clip of The Agent Show, which ran for one season on The Esquire Network, which canceled it because no one wants to watch agents doing actual work. They’re not pursuing HBO’s romantic fantasies or Steven Soderbergh’s woke DIY dreams. They do boring, stupid, thankless work. So spare me the New York Times praising High Flying Bird as “A Thrilling Dunk On Capitalism” since nearly every character in the movie is rich or soon to be rich. At the end of the day, Ray is still an agent, with all the narcissism that implies. Only a filmmaker with a similarly inflated sense of self-importance could consider that guy a hero.

It almost makes you miss Jerry Maguire. At least we were allowed to think he was an asshole.

Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of ten semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. He's written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

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