This article originally appeared in Arkansas Money & Politics.
Until a coaching search captivates college fan bases from Tempe to Tallahassee, or a popular pro athlete signs a new contract, sports agents operate mostly outside the public realm.
But they represent a significant cog in the sports business engine. Coaches and professional athletes, of both the actual and aspiring variety, rely on agents to market them, negotiate for them and otherwise guide them through the labyrinth of contracts and legal minutiae in which they’re enveloped.And though romanticized in popular culture by the 1990s film, Jerry Maguire, most agents are more comfortable flying under the radar than they are screaming, “Show me the money!” over the phone. In fact, many of them are lawyers with sports law representing just one portion of their overall practice.
The Little Rock law firm of Wright Lindsey Jennings (WLJ) has a history in sports law, and its practice was relaunched through attorneys Judy Henry and Jason Browning. Though each has been recognized and honored for their work in other areas of practice, each also is recognized in the sports law arena.
Henry, of course, is notable to Arkansas sports fans as Coach Sam Pittman’s agent. She is believed to be the first female agent to represent an SEC head coach. Browning, a certified expert agent advisor with Major League Baseball, was vaulted onto the national scene roughly a decade ago through the book, Pinstripe Defection: A Small Town Attorney’s Battle with the New York Yankees. The book chronicles a grievance Browning filed with Major League Baseball against the Yankees, baseball’s most (in)famous and powerful team, as a 29-year-old lawyer in Fort Smith.
Homegrown lawyer helps bring head Hog home
Judy Henry jokes that “Coach Sam,” now head football coach at the University of Arkansas, called her. After 28 years in the business without an agent, Pittman last fall decided it might be time to hire one as he pursued his first college head coaching job.
By now, Razorback fans know the story by heart. Suffice it to say that Pittman credits Henry with landing him his dream job.
For Henry, Pittman’s hiring was the symbolic “cherry on top” to a decision 12 years ago to add athlete and coach representation to her legal playbook. It’s only fitting that she did. Growing up in Texarkana with a dad and brothers into sports and the outdoors, she was naturally drawn to both. A scholarship gymnast at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, Henry headed up the Hill for her master’s and ultimately law degrees. Once there, she coached what was then the UA’s club-level gymnastics team as well as local kids at the Fayetteville Youth Center. She also met her future husband (and fellow attorney), Cliff, who lettered as a defensive back in 1979-81 for the Hogs and played in the Fiesta, Hall of Fame and Gator bowls.
And of course, one of the Henrys’ two sons, Joseph, played tight end at Arkansas from 2005 to 2009. He would return to Fayetteville three years later as a graduate assistant, and that’s when Judy and Cliff got to know Jamie and Sam Pittman, newly arrived for Sam’s run as the UA’s offensive line coach for Bret Bielema.
Joseph’s back on campus now as an offensive quality-control coach, and Judy is as close to the program as she’s ever been. But before that circle came full, Henry already was an established agent representing Division 1 athletes and college coaches. She’s protective of her client list but acknowledges representing several former Razorbacks. As an Arkansas sports girl and lifelong fan with strong ties to the UA, Henry admits that little perk is icing on the cake.
“To represent athletes who played in the state or have Arkansas roots is really special,” she said.
But the motivation to add “agent” to her portfolio after practicing law for more than 20 years was the culmination of a long-standing professional goal to assist athletes.
“I made the decision that I was going to do what I had dreamed of doing for many years,” she said. “One day, I was going to do something in a field to represent athletes.”
Given its history in sports law, WLJ was supportive of Henry’s pivot. As was her family, which provided its own unanimous support. Licensure with the National Football League represented a year-long process, and Henry passed her exam to make it official during Joseph’s final year as a player in Fayetteville.
Henry approaches her sports law practice from a client’s perspective. While a law license isn’t required for agent licensure in the NFL as a certified contract advisor (CCA), she believes agents with law licenses are best suited to look after clients’ best interests, acting as something of a one-stop shop.
“I represent them as an agent and as a lawyer,” she said. “I’ve done everything from estate planning to forming nonprofit organizations and companies through which they conduct special events or camps.”
Henry also sets up foundations on behalf of coaches and athletes who want to give back to their communities, brokers real estate deals, handles any business-related matters and of course, negotiates endorsement deals.
“We can do all the collateral things an athlete needs,” Henry said. “As they mature in their career, we can modify their needs.”
And she’s purposely selective about taking on new clients, thanks to an established practice that entails class action and commercial litigation among other specialties.
“If our goals are not aligned, then it’s probably not going to be a good match,” Henry said. “When you do just agent work, there’s the potential to take on representation that maybe you shouldn’t. I was in a position where I could be extremely transparent and very selective.”
Athlete representation can be a lucrative field when agents strike gold. Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes’ new contract with Kansas City is worth $503 million over 10 years, after all. And though agents’ cuts are capped at 3 percent by the NFL, 3 percent of $503 million is more than $15 million. (Then there’s Seattle star QB Russell Wilson, represented by Little Rock’s Frontline Athlete Management, who last year signed a contract extension worth $140 million over four years.)
But Henry didn’t add sports agent to her repertoire for the money.
“I knew this was something I wanted to do, something I had to do,” she said. “I like being a counselor to the athletes and coaches I serve. If I can help educate someone to help foster their life skills, that’s really gratifying for me.”
While it was perhaps ordained from the beginning that Henry’s career would involve sports in some capacity, the path to agenthood began in northern Virginia, in the home of Don Breaux, the respected former assistant coach with the Hogs and the Washington Redskins, of all places.
Breaux was an assistant coach and offensive coordinator for the Redskins during a run of success that included three Super Bowl titles from 1982 to 1991. He also coached running backs at Arkansas in two stints, from 1968-71 under Frank Broyles and from 1977-80 under Lou Holtz. In 1971, Breaux coached in Fayetteville with his friend Joe Gibbs, the legendary coach who went on to lead the ’Skins through that historic run.
Around the same time Breaux was helping launch Washington’s decade of glory, Henry was in D.C. clerking on Capitol Hill for Sen. David Pryor. Her D.C. “best girlfriend,” as it turns out, was one of two Breaux daughters. Henry spent her weekdays in D.C. and weekends at the Breaux house in suburban Centreville, where coaches Gibbs and Breaux often talked shop.
Aware of her background and interest in sports, the coaches “indulged” Henry by including her in that shoptalk. Henry relishes memories of X’s and O’s diagrammed on napkins left randomly throughout the Breaux house.
“This is when I really got interested in doing NFL work,” she said. “They gave me an insight I otherwise wouldn’t have had. That was my first taste of the NFL.”
Her exposure to the inner workings of a major college football program through Cliff planted the seed that was cultivated in the Breaux home. As Henry advanced in her career, she “didn’t think that athletes were represented as well as they should be… I decided, at some point, I was going to try this.”
Henry’s low-key, “keep my head down and do my work; what you see is what you get” approach worked well when it came to Pittman’s hire at Arkansas — it actually helped set the coach apart. As is common in college coaching searches, high-profile agents use willing clients as pawns to fuel bidding wars. This appeared to be the case in last December’s coaching carousel, and Arkansas athletic director Hunter Yurachek took notice of Henry’s transparency.
“As a director of athletics in a coaching search, you interact with a large number of individuals with varying interests,” he told Arkansas Money & Politics. “In some cases, the approach taken by those representing coaches can actually be detrimental to their opportunity. In contrast, I appreciated the professional manner in which Judy engaged with us throughout the process and served as an advocate for Coach Pittman. I am certainly glad that at the completion of the process, we were able to introduce Sam Pittman as the head football coach at the University of Arkansas.”
While the search unfolded, painstakingly slow as far as Hog fans were concerned, Yurachek was always available and willing to listen, Henry said. And for the record, Pittman’s hire all went down in less than a week. Throughout the entire process, Henry was a constant advocate on Pittman’s behalf.
“From the time I knew that the candidate pool was slimming to the time Hunter offered Coach Sam the job was not very long,” Henry said. Recognizing an opening, Henry hammered home her client’s strengths — his standing among peers in the industry, the rousing endorsements of former players, the fact that he wasn’t in it for the money (Pittman signed for a modest-by-SEC-standards $3 million a year) and most importantly, his love of the program and fervent desire for the Razorback job to represent his first and last head coaching gig.
“This was always the prime job he wanted, and he wants it to be his career-ending job,” she said of Pittman. “He wasn’t running from anything — this is the one he’s always wanted.”
Henry stressed that she appreciated what the program’s current shortcomings were but knew what “Coach Sam and Jamie” brought to the program. “I knew that this was the right move.”
For Henry, the Pittman signing was a divine trifecta — applying a vocation she loves for a man she knows and respects to the benefit of a school and program with which she has close ties and allegiance. A cherry on top, indeed.
For Browning, ‘staying in the game’ meant law school
Jason Browning went to law school specifically because he wanted to become an agent or be involved with sports law in some capacity.
Admitted to the bar in 1998, it wasn’t long before he was called up to the big leagues. These days, Browning, a certified expert agent advisor with the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA), is of counsel with one of the state’s most prominent law firms. In addition to sports law, which he estimates takes up about 20 percent of his practice, Browning works in medical malpractice, commercial litigation and more.
But as a young attorney at Warner, Smith & Harris in Fort Smith, he stepped up to the plate when his big break came calling. Through connections with Chicago agent Chris Fanta, Browning worked with a Mexican League baseball team to file a grievance with MLB against the hallowed Yankees.
The five-year legal ordeal chronicled in Clay McKinney’s 2010 book brought to light the sometimes shady practices employed by MLB teams in the international scouting arena.
Browning calls the case the highlight of his career. And why not? It raised sporting eyebrows worldwide. “I certainly had the commissioner’s ear for a certain period of time while all that was pending,” he said.
Browning’s grueling work eventually led to the Yankees settling with the Mexican team he represented, the Yucatan Leones (Lions). Mexican League baseball is considered the equivalent of Triple A in the minor leagues, one step below the majors, but with no affiliation to MLB teams.
And in 1996, the Leones acquired the rights to defected Cuban catcher Michel Hernandez. The club worked a deal in 1998 that committed the Yankees to pay Yucatan $500,000 if Hernandez ever made New York’s 40-man roster. He eventually did, but the Yankees didn’t pay.
At the 2002 baseball winter meetings in Nashville, Browning met Leones owner Gustavo Ricalde Duran, who shared his story. Challenging the Yankees in court not being a bucket-list item for most agent advisors, Browning stepped up to the plate.
But Browning never would’ve been in Nashville that day to hear Ricalde Duran’s tale had he not been in New York in 1998 after graduating from Hendrix College with a political science degree. A baseball guy to the core — a native west Texan, he was a high-school second baseman in Fort Smith and a pitcher at Hendrix — Browning was drawn to athlete representation. This led him to a conference in New York to hear the legendary David Falk, who represented Michael Jordan and other NBA stars such as Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning and through the 1990s was considered the second-most influential person in the NBA behind then-commissioner David Stern.
Following Falk’s presentation, Browning tracked down the speaker.
“He was nice enough to take some time and speak with me,” Browning said. “One of the questions I asked him was, ‘How do I get into this industry? What do I need to do?’ And he said, ‘First and foremost, go to law school. Get a law degree.’ So, I went to law school. Without a doubt, it teaches you a skill set that is necessary.”
Following in the footsteps of Falk, who had earned his J.D. from George Washington University Law School, was a good move for Browning, who intended to become an agent or “stay in the game” in some capacity. Upon graduating from the University of Arkansas School of Law in Fayetteville in 1998, he applied to the MLB Players Association to be a certified agent advisor, and his path was set. Though at first, the going was slow. His first job was at the old Warner firm in his adopted hometown. Then the Leones came calling.
Since, Browning has expanded his practice but still represents agents in fee grievances and provides counsel to agents and players alike through salary arbitration, which entails presenting a case before a three-person panel of arbitrators.
“Therein lies the ability to use your oratory skills, which is what I like to do,” he said. “There’s a difference in being a fan and having a knowledge base of labor relations and what goes on from a business side and representing players against clubs, which is a whole different skill set.”
The virus-revamped MLB playoffs kicked off the last week of September. They’ll look different this year than they ever have, but Browning expects a return to normalcy.
“I anticipate they’ll start on time next season if the pandemic is under control, and I think you’ll see fans. This is the fan in me, but I’d like to think there’s going to be such a thirst for the game and the ability to go to a game will be well-received.”
Though he sometimes sees the underside of the sport he loves, Browning remains optimistic for the future of baseball.
“I see it as being as healthy as it’s ever been, if we can just get a [full] season in,” he said.