Happy Birthday to one of my most famous collaborators, Bernie Marcus, co-founder of The Home Depot and co-author of ‘Built From Scratch: How a Couple of Regular Guys Grew The Home Depot from Nothing to $30 Billion.”
Wish him a Happy Birthday by ordering the book in paperback! http://amzn.to/1zXGolq
When the Tampa Bay Times published the obituary of Sam Hall on September 4, 2014 (he died August 11, 2014), I was reminded of a Q&A interview that Connie May Fowler–then still going by her pre-best-selling novelist name, Constance May–wrote for Jump Monthly magazine. Jump was a Tampa Bay area, city-style magazine that I published for four issues. And the Sam Hall story was on the cover of the fourth and final issue. It was a great conversation with the former Olympian, Dayton, Ohio, mayor and two-term member of the Ohio State House of Representatives who went on to be a hugely controversial figure as a self-proclaimed counter-terrorist/soldier of freedom.
The irony of the situation between Hall and Fowler was that her fame as a writer a decade later eclipsed his as a figure involved in Ronald Reagan-era Iran-Contra scandal. When Hall died, he was a little-remembered man, a footnote in geopolitical history. By contrast, Fowler today is the Oprah Winfrey endorsed author of Before Women Had Wings, How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly, and many more successful literary titles.
As a side note, before publication of this interview, Connie May and I were good friends. She kept me busy with assignments when she was editor of a regional computer newspaper, The Data Bus–where I eventually succeeded her–and when I started Jump, she conducted this interview for me for free. To be honest, Connie May absolutely hated the headlines I put on the cover, “Bungle in the Jungle: The Private Wars of Sam Hall,” and on the inside, “Send Lawyers, Guns & Money: For Soldier of Freedom Sam Hall, Happiness is a Warm Gun. Shoot, Shoot.” In my defense, I was trying to be provocative, trying to attract eyeballs, trying to stay in business.
Connie May ripped me a new one over my choice of words and hasn’t spoken to me since, although for the last few years we have been friends on Facebook, so I’m hoping she’s no longer mad and that sharing this 27 years later won’t reopen the rift. As for Hall, he made one threatening call to me about it, but nothing else happened. I suspect he gave her a load of crap about it, which set her off on me.
I’m sharing this here, now, because Hall has died and history still hasn’t definitively made up its mind about the guy. And I still think Connie May did a bang-up job dealing with this mystery wrapped inside of an Iran-Contra enigma. — Bob Andelman
By BOB ANDELMAN
(Originally published in Gallery Magazine, Spring 1994)
Vince Lombardi never met a sports agent he liked. Or one with whom he’d negotiate a deal.
According to legend, when a popular Green Bay Packers player showed up in Lombardi’s office with an agent to renegotiate his contract, the coach looked the outsider up and down. “Who’s this?” he asked.
“My agent,” said the player.
Lombardi disappeared into an adjacent room and was gone for about 30 minutes. When he returned, the puzzled player and his agent said they were ready to get started.
“We have nothing to talk about,” Lombardi said. “You’ve been traded to Washington.”
Agents and players in all four major team sports have changed dramatically since Lombardi’s day. The collapse of the reserve clause and rise of television, unions, collective bargaining agreements, collusion, salary arbitration and free agency have forever changed the leverage of athletes dealing with management.
Prior to free agency and salary arbitration, there were no real agents in baseball except for a superstar using a manager for his speaking engagement or endorsements. The reserve clause in baseball bound a player in perpetuity to a club. If an agent said he wanted $80,000 instead of $30,000, management said, “He can shovel coal! I control his destiny.” But when free agency and arbitration came into the picture, players needed somebody to prepare their case and negotiate. Free agency became a cumbersome process for players. They’d have to call around, make appointments, play one team against each other. Agents came on the scene and intervened almost overnight.
In the National Football League, it wasn’t until the collective bargaining agreement of 1975 that the right of representation was guaranteed.
“Up until then,” says Berkeley, Ca.-based agent Leigh Steinberg, “it was the Wild, Wild West.”
Steinberg, who represents more NFL quarterbacks – 23 – than anyone else and who negotiated five football deals in 1993 alone worth $80 million, leads the life other agents dream about. For one thing, he’s made quite a handsome living by consistently signing the best pigskin talent straight out of college. For another, he’s almost as famous as some of his players.
He’s not the only agent whose reputation made him a recognized name in sports household. Others include David Falk (Michael Jordan’s man), Jim Neader (Dwight Gooden) and the late Bob Woolf (Larry Bird). But despite their renown and success, there’s debate over the impact they’ve had on the games themselves, good or bad.
“I think they’ve had an enormous effect,” says Orlando Magic General Manager Pat Williams. “Over the last 20 years, they became the comparable businessmen to the owners on the other side of the table. It’s not the players – the agents control everything that happens on the other side of the table. Their job is to drive the toughest bargain they can.”
NFL Players Association Executive Director Gene Upshaw steered his players union through the legal morass of the reserve system during the late ’80s and into the promised land of free agency. But he doesn’t rank agents on his list of the high and mighty in sports.
“Their power and influence is in their clients,” Upshaw says. “And they can’t operate unless we say so. No agent ever obtained free agency. The union did. And no agent can make a player better than he is.”
Early on, the agent field was full of unaccredited shysters, eager to scam a few thousand bucks off unsuspecting, uneducated, athletically gifted youngsters. Today, player representation is a higher art, characterized by stable, recognizable faces and typically controlled and certified by the player unions. In the NFL, in fact, clubs are restricted by the new collective bargaining agreement from negotiating with any agent who has not been certified by the NFL Players Association.
Of the four major leagues – NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball – only the latter has yet to require agent certification. No doubt it’s coming.
“I am not anti-agent,” Pat Williams says. “The good ones are good for the game. They know what they’re doing, they know the industry. They’re doing what they have to do. Could the player do it alone? No.”
o o o
Twenty years ago, average player salaries in sports were stuck in the low five figures. The concept of New England Patriots QB Drew Bledsoe signing a $4.5 million bonus the day he joined the Patriots didn’t exist. The dynamics were different. And agents were luxuries.
Now sports dollars are so big, the contracts so complicated, agents have become necessities. “Dealing with the type of money we’re dealing with today, you definitely need one,” says Upshaw, who never had an agent during his playing days. Today, in fact, most general managers would rather negotiate with an agent than a player. Athletes who represent themselves get emotionally involved in the process, which can be disruptive for all concerned. It’s not the best thing for a player’s ego to hear he’s not the best at his position anymore or that the team doesn’t need him anymore.
“I have not dealt with a player in 25 years and I’m grateful,” Williams says. “They wouldn’t know what to do. You couldn’t get a deal done. They’ve got to have a rep. And after a player signs, they need someone to help with taxes and finances. That’s very important. If their finances are messed up, their head is messed up. If the player has someone taking care of that, it’s a plus.”
In the early 1960s Los Angeles Dodgers pitchers Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale decided to negotiate as a team, demanding $120,000 each under the direction of agent Bill Hayes. They want comparable pay, which the Dodgers didn’t like. Drysdale was great, but Koufax was greater, and the greater attraction; he was the one who put asses in the stands. In the end, Koufax got more than Drysdale, but they both earned more than Los Angeles would have paid otherwise.
Hayes was the first agent taken seriously by baseball. “It was the first union in baseball, but it was only two players,” says Andy Zimbalist, Smith College economist and author of Baseball and Billions.
Koufax and Drysdale’s strategy worked well for their day, but imagine them, or Mantle, Mays, Ruth, Tittle, Cousy, Russell or Howe with proper representation under modern free agency. Those guys were little more than chattel under the old system and were paid as such. They were owned in perpetuity by their teams. Fans today complain about players hop scotching from team to team, lacking franchise loyalty, but barely two generations ago, athletes had little to no control over their career destinies. If they played the game, they danced the owners’ tune.
Why do players make so much money now?
“The agents facilitated it but you have to give a lot of credit to the player associations,” says St. Petersburg, Fl.-based agent Jim Neader. “Before them, the owners had the leverage. They could pay you or not pay you. It’s like the Ralph Kiner thing. He hit 50 home runs and the Pirates wanted him to take a pay cut because they could finish last with or without him.”
Free agency has meant the gradual control of player destinies shifting from teams to the athletes themselves. And that, in turn, has increased competition for their services, creating opportunities for the agents to answer the question: How high is up?
“We wondered how high was up when we heard of the first $1 million contracts,” says CBS-TV college basketball analyst Billy Packer. “Now there are $20 million contracts. Now we have a rookie in the NBA signing for $70 million.”
Television dollars pushed those figures into the stratosphere. NFL teams, for example, jumped from earning $2 million annually, each, on national TV contracts, to $19 million each in 1989 and $40 million each in 1993, according to Steinberg. “That’s an expansion of 20 times in 20 years,” he says. “The percentage of the gross dollars in football that the players get – in 1982, it was 55 percent. To trigger the salary cap this year, the figure was 67 percent. That changes the whole face of what goes on.”
Agents negotiate bigger and better deals, taking approximately 5 percent off the top for their trouble. They also safeguard their guys, insulating them from the negative posturing management sometimes takes. Oral agreements still happen; high-tech negotiations via telephone, fax, pager, modem and satellite are becoming rote. “We finished (Dallas Cowboys QB) Troy Aikman’s first negotiation with Jerry Jones over a big-screen television set with them on a link-up in Dallas,” Steinberg says.
Many factors influence the success of an agent in getting the highest salary, signing bonus and incentives for a client. Two of the most significant are the unions’ relatively recent ability to disclose player salaries and the creeping impact of salary caps.
Salary caps changed the game just as things starting getting out of hand. Instead of simply seeking the separation of the owner from his wallet, players are finding themselves competing with teammates for a finite piece of a juicy pie. To sign a new impact player, general managers are asking current players for givebacks and concessions so as not to exceed the cap. They pose this question: Do you want to win or just get rich? In the ultra-competitive world of sports, there can be only one answer. It may not be what the players union had in mind, but it’s definitely happening.
“The cap is an artificial formula. It’s just a way of valuing contracts,” Steinberg says. “I put three ‘disappearing years’ in Drew Bledsoe’s contract. He signed a 6-year contract and got a $4.5 million bonus to sign. The Patriots only had so much room under the cap. In order for Drew to get $4.5 million, we need enough years for the ‘vision’ of it to be $7 million. If, at the end of three years, he’s played 50 percent of the plays, the last three years go away. We used the salary cap to give him the advantage of a huge bonus plus the advantage of getting out of his contract early. That’s because bonuses count differently against the salary cap than salary does. Under the cap, he gets $750,000 a year.”
Confused? Get in line.
“I don’t think a lot of people understand the caps,” Pat Williams says. “We spend a lot of time on education, explaining what can and can’t be done.”
o o o
Pat Williams has negotiated contracts with two of the NBA’s biggest stars, Shaquille O’Neal (Orlando Magic) and Julius “Dr. J” Erving (Philadelphia 76ers). The situations – and the agents – were generations apart.
Dr. J’s agent, Irwin Weiner, a colorful, flamboyant, archetypal agent thrived in the old smoke-filled rooms of yore. And when the 76ers acquired Erving from the New Jersey Nets, Weiner had his tiger by the tail.
“We bought Julius from the Nets for $3 million,” Williams recalls. “Part of the deal was that we had to get him signed.
“The numbers were huge,” he says. “That was the biggest deal cut to that point: $3 million to buy him, $3 million to sign him, $500,000 a year for six years. It was unprecedented.”
Fitz Eugene Dixon, Jr. had just purchased the 76ers and was not yet well versed in the sport, according to Williams, then the team’s general manager. Here’s the conversation they had about Dr. J:
WILLIAMS: “Fitz, Julius Erving is available.”
DIXON: “Who’s he?”
“He’s the Babe Ruth of baseball.”
“How much will it cost to get him?”
“Six million dollars.”
“Pat, are you recommending this deal?”
Williams gulped hard.
“Yes sir, I am.”
“Then go get it done.”
Fast-forward to 1992. The Orlando Magic won first pick in the draft and opted for Louisiana State University center The Shaq, clearly the man of the moment, a player who could transform the expansion franchise into a playoff contender.
“We knew it was going to be a tough signing. And it was,” Williams says. “Fortunately, his people were perceptive to know of our cap situation. But that was a very tough, intense signing.”
Leonard Armato represented Shaq. It was the first time he ever did business with Williams, but not the last. A year later, when the Magic miraculously won the top pick for the second consecutive year and chose Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway, he was represented by Armato.
o o o
Over a 16-year NFL career spanning three careers, Gene Upshaw’s timing always seemed slightly off. He was drafted in 1967 (first round, 16th overall), just after the merger of the NFL and the old AFL. There was no competition left for his services following the draft; he could either take the Oakland Raiders offer or leave it.
“Then, the year the WFL came along, I was already under contract,” he says. “And by the time the USFL came along, I was too old.”
But Upshaw, whose fame as a player has been eclipsed by his legendary stubbornness and success as executive director of the NFL Players Association, isn’t really griping about his compensation as a player. Upshaw felt that for the time, Raiders owner Al Davis treated him and his teammates fairly.
“I would negotiate my contract and Art Shell’s contract at the same time. I always figured whatever I was making, he should make,” Upshaw says. “Al Davis never let you get to the end of a contract anyway. He’d always bring you in and pay you more money. He believed in seniority. When I got there, nobody was going to make more money than Jim Otto. Later, no one made more money than me and Shell. And if Davis drafted somebody he had to pay more money to, he’d bring us up.”
When the opportunity to sign Ted Hendricks presented itself, Davis went to his players and warned that landing Hendricks would upset the team’s salary scale. “If that will improve the team, go ahead,” the players told the owner.
Another mark of how things change: Davis would only negotiate a player’s base salary. Upshaw says the man didn’t believe in incentive clauses.
“He said, ‘I expect you to do well. I expect you to go to the Pro Bowl. That’s what I’m paying you for,'” Upshaw recalls.
END, PART ONE
Part Two: War Stories
No two sports agents have exactly the same relationship with their clients. Some do straight contract negotiations and nothing more. Some handle client investments, everything from stocks, bonds and insurance to opening eponymous restaurants and sports bars. Some develop endorsement deals and give ongoing career advice. And some become more like family.
“Sitting with Troy Aikman the night of the San Francisco playoff game, when he’s been knocked senseless and doesn’t know where he is, doesn’t fit in any of these categories,” says Berkeley, Ca.-based agent Leigh Steinberg.
Another Steinberg QB snapshot from the 1993-94 NFL season: Jeff George’s tempestuous holdout from the Indianapolis Colts.
“Publicly, I had to defend my client,” Steinberg says. “Privately, I don’t ever think that sitting out a contract that’s already been negotiated is ever a good decision in a short career. In conflict resolution, my least favorite decision is having a player sit out of camp. When Jeff didn’t report to camp, the team said, ‘We don’t know where he is.’ That created a Howard Hughes flakiness that wasn’t there. Jeff was in the midst of a 6-year contract, of which he played three years. But it wasn’t about redoing the contract. He wanted to be traded.”
George eventually reported, enjoyed a fair season, and was traded to the Falcons in the post-season.
St. Petersburg, Fl.-based agent Jim Neader also provides a very personal service with no secretaries, no associates, no gophers. “I’m involved in every facet – management, taxes, travel,” he explains. “If the air conditioning unit goes out in my guy’s condo, I make sure it gets fixed. I prefer doing it all myself. I think it’s good for the clients; they only work with one guy.”
When Neader’s most high profile clients, New York Mets pitcher Dwight Gooden and his nephew, Florida Marlins right fielder Gary Sheffield, scrapped with the law, or during Gooden’s drug treatment, Neader was on the scene, acting as spokesman, protecting his clients’ interests. Damage control is a never-ending job with multi-million-dollar performance and endorsement deals flapping in the breeze. “Everybody has to deal with adversity. Their problems appeared to be worse than they were,” Neader says. “Gary’s weren’t that bad. And Dwight – he’s really an exemplary citizen now.”
o o o
In 1983, the average NFL salary was $100,000. In 1993, it was $750,000. Those numbers draw a lot of wannabes to the agenting business. But it’s very hard making a full-time living as a football agent. Expenses for newcomers are exorbitant; the odds of wooing and winning the rare athlete who will make a roster and survive the minimum three years it takes an agent to turn a profit, remote. It’s a good sideline though, for attorneys, accountants and professional managers, and it’s exciting for anyone lucky enough to score even one pro client.
Agent fees, however, are dropping. The reasons are simple: first, the players unions demand it; and second, competition for players is fierce.
“We urge players to negotiate commissions,” says Michael Duberstein, director of research for the NFL Players Association. “The problem is that they’re recruited by agents. They’re in the mode – recruited by high schools, by colleges – they don’t realize sports after college is a business. They think it’s a privilege to be recruited.”
Unscrupulous agents once pulled up to 12 percent from unwary athletes. In the 1980s, the top rate in the NFL was down to 5 percent; it’s now creeping to an average of 4 percent according to Duberstein and others.
“In basketball,” says Gary Woolf, president of Bob Woolf Associates, “there’s a maximum of 4 percent, and that’s going down. Players are being represented for 2 or 3 percent. There’s a downward spiral. But the money is greater, so there’s a good reason for that.”
“The vast bulk of players just won’t want to spend that 5 percent anymore,” says Andy Zimbalist, Smith College economist and author of Baseball and Billions. “There will be people who will be able to crack the major league level by offer 2 and 3 percent fees. The area of agency is ripe for a lot of competition.”
o o o
The agents whose names every sports fan knows – Steinberg, Neader and David Falk (Michael Jordan) – don’t hang around the schools any more looking for the next phenom. But that doesn’t stop the top talent from finding them: Steinberg alone represented four of the NFL’s No. 1 draft picks from 1989-93 (Aikman, Jeff George, Russell Maryland and Bledsoe).
When the annual college drafts roll around, it’s not just the student-athlete and his father in the hunt for representation. He’s helped by uncles, coaches, lawyers and alumni. “You’re not just meeting Drew Bledsoe,” Steinberg says. “He had a screening process with Oklahoma lawyers who grilled us for hours.”
One of Steinberg’s latest clients, Ohio State defensive lineman Dan Wilkinson, knew enough about the agent process before the draft to call several lawyers and make “who’s who” inquiries with the NFL Players Association – “things that were not the norm when I began,” Steinberg says.
Michael Duberstein’s NFLPA research department takes responsibility for certifying and regulating 800 player agents (only 300 of whom actually have active clients) and reading every NFL contract. His department also meets with college players each year, preparing them for representation by professional agents. He says today’s agents are generally consistent in the quality of work they provide, in part because of the association’s guidelines:
o Agents must be certified to represent NFL players
o Agents must have a college degree or equivalent work experience
o Agents must have a working knowledge of the NFL collective bargaining agreement
o Agents must use a standard contract, provided by the NFLPA, to form agreements with players
“I wish certification were stricter,” Gary Woolf says. “We need a high level of ethics and code. If they can’t meet that, they don’t belong in the industry.”
Agents don’t have to be lawyers – although many are – because the various players unions and/or management typically use standard employment contracts. No agent writes an NFL contract; the league uses the same contract for every player. The agent fills in the annual salary and incentives. Even incentives have been standardized.
“The role of the college player should fall in two areas: finish school and make a pro roster,” Duberstein says. “The agents’ job is to get a contract.”
“We start the process at the combine,” says NFL Players Association Executive Director Gene Upshaw. “From that point on, cradle to grave, we try to help the players any way we can.”
Duberstein stresses that a kid just out of school must be comfortable with his agent and trust his judgment implicitly. Because if a negotiation with a team begins to sour, the team will inevitably try an end run around the agent, warning the family that if their collegiate all-star doesn’t accept the team’s latest offer, he’ll be pumping gas come opening day.
o o o
Some men become athletes. Some know, by their teens, that dream won’t become real, so they turn their love of sports into coaching, management, broadcasting, sports writing – and agenting. The latter may be the least profitable path. Start-up expenses mount and only a small percentage of blue-chippers make it into the pros. For the agents on top of the pyramid, however, it’s champagne and caviar.
Leigh Steinberg celebrated his 20th NFL draft as an agent in 1994. He met his first client, first-round, No. 1 draft pick Steve Bartkowski, as an undergraduate dorm counselor while in law school. The timing couldn’t be better; the nascent World Football League was competing with the NFL, running up salaries for the first time in years.
“We got lucky and Bart got the largest rookie contract in NFL history,” Steinberg says. “It eclipsed Namath and Simpson, $400,000 for six years. His bonus was $250,000. His salary was $40,000.”
o o o
Jim Neader became an agent when his pro hockey career crashed the boards during Minnesota North Stars pre-season camp in 1978. The Stars were staying in the same hotel as the Minnesota Vikings. Of the football players Neader met, he struck up a particularly good rapport with Paul Harris. Neader, holder of a masters degree in business, was already thinking about a new career.
“I could see I wasn’t going to make it,” Neader recalls. “I told (Harris), ‘If I get cut and you need an agent . . . ‘ Three weeks later, he got cut. He hired me and we got him on an NFL team, the Bucs.”
Neader’s stable grew slowly, focusing on football and baseball players close to his home in the Tampa Bay area. His second client was Guy Hoffman, a one-time pitcher for the Chicago White Sox and a Bradley University fraternity brother of Neader’s. Next came Lloyd Moseby, the Toronto Blue Jays No. 1 draft pick in 1978, followed by Neader’s most notable and notorious client, New York Mets ace Dwight Gooden.
“I followed his career at Hillsborough High School,” Neader says. “I didn’t say a word to him until his senior high school season was over. Then I met with him and his dad.” Gooden signed on with Neader in time for the June 1982 draft and they’ve been together ever since. “I believe in him and he believes in me,” Neader says.
Neader hasn’t hung around the schools in more than eight years and he’s very selective about taking on new clients. He almost took on a new football player a few years ago, but the feeding frenzy of would-be agents/sharks ended that deal before it happened.
“There was a prospect my brother knew from high school. Good player, small town setting. I heard the guy was a potential draft pick. My brother talked to him, said, ‘After the season, talk to Jim.’ The season ends and my brother schedules a meeting. The week of the meeting, the guy cancels. He was deluged. Eighty inquiries, 20 visits. Some major agents, from all around the country. Five years ago, it would have been different for him. I don’t think the outcome would have changed. I never met the guy; he never got drafted. Signed a free agent contract; never played in the NFL.”
o o o
The late Bob Woolf may well have been the most successful, best-known and beloved sports agent of all time. His sports clients included Larry Bird, Carl Yastrzemski, Joe Montana, Julius Erving and Vinny Testaverde; his entertainment clients included Larry King, Gene Shalit and New Kids on the Block. He negotiated big deals with Donald Trump, Ted Turner, Roone Arledge and Red Auerbach. He even wrote a well-received book on negotiating, Friendly Persuasion (Berkeley).
Woolf’s first client was former Boston Red Sox pitcher Earl Wilson. Wilson wasn’t allowed to bring anyone else into his negotiating sessions, however – not his wife, not his best friend, and certainly not Woolf. If he had a question, he had to excuse himself from the table, walk down the hall and call Woolf from a pay phone.
Times have certainly changed. And while Woolf is gone, his Boston sports management firm, Bob Woolf Associates, continues under the aegis of his son, Gary, 28. Although Gary did his first professional contract more than a decade ago while an undergraduate at Harvard and was perhaps the youngest agent in sports at the time, he hasn’t exactly followed in dad’s footsteps. He’s a behind-the-scenes player at the firm, which also employs his mother and sisters.
“With the passing of my father, people wondered which direction the company would go,” Woolf says. “But we had already been planning a new direction because my father had been planning to step back. In some ways we’ve become a better company. When my father was here, he was the most important person in the company. We don’t have another Bob Woolf. Now we have other agent who have stepped up, agents who are maturing into bigger roles.”
Woolf says representation can be very gratifying.
“In two or three years, a young athlete will make decisions affecting the rest of his life,” he says. “We’re involved in guiding them through every aspect of their career. We’re a main resource for all the life decisions they make. It’s a tremendous opportunity to influence people’s lives and guide them through a rocky transition.”
Imagine these kids coming out of college, many of whom have never touched wealth of any kind, kids whose lives have always been directed by parents, guidance counselors and coach, and who are suddenly transported a thousand miles from home and given a million bucks. They look to agents for help and direction.
Their careers may take off, but when they are injured, when they’re in the hospital, when they go through operations and rehab, agents live through all that with them, according to Randy Vataha, the agent responsible for football at Bob Woolf Associates. “It’s all part of their career, what they look to you for help,” he says. “You have to pump them up.”
Through his father’s eyes, Woolf saw professional athletes rise from modest salaries in the 1960s through the promise of free agency, new leagues and rising salaries in the ’70s. The ’80s brought the specter of salary caps and personal services contracts. And as that decade gave way to this one, athletes gained greater economic savvy and control, first in basketball, then football, and now in baseball.
“The players can appreciate much more for their work,” Woolf says. “Both sides are partners. Management is still making money and the players are also doing well.”
Woolf thinks the trend worth watching in representation involves corporations such as Nike, which now represents athletes in addition to using them for product endorsement purposes. “There’s a lot of integration occurring,” he says. “Corporations are integrating with the agency process, handling the players’ careers. The role of the agent is at an impasse because the players associations are so strong. There’s a tug-o-war. Who represents the client? Is it the players association or the representative?”
o o o
Contract negotiating during the early phases of the sports agent/free agency era wasn’t too complicated other than keeping track of the zeroes. In the old days, the player or his agent said, “I want this,” and the team said, “You can’t have it.”
“Negotiating is a lot of fun. It’s a challenge,” Randy Vataha says. “You don’t just go in and say, ‘My player wants a million,’ management offers $500,000 and you settle at $750,000. There’s all kinds of issues in terms of timing so the contract expires at the best time. Issues to be considered include when collective bargaining expires and when something new might come up. One player went from $450,000 to $2.4 million in one year because we got him in the last year before there was a salary cap.”
Computer runs, in-depth statistics and analysis are the agent’s stock in trade when they face off with management.
Half the ammunition agents use comes from salary comparisons within the athlete’s league. That information is typically provided by the players unions. The NFLPA, for example, began supplying salary data to agents in 1983, in exchange for the agents funneling their latest deals back to the union.
“Until the beginning of 1982, no player in the NFL had any idea what any other player was making,” Michael Duberstein says. “Nor did any agent know what salary trends were or did they have a glimpse at comprehensive salaries.”
Duberstein says that in football, once adequate salary reporting was available on both sides of the negotiating table, salaries accelerated and inequities in player compensation from team to team were eliminated.
“The role of the agent can be two-fold,” Duberstein says. “There can be a very passive role, essentially saying, ‘No, no, no – yes!’ knowing when to say yes. Or they can be a proactive agent, taking that information and coming up with creative ways to bend rules and get a contract.”
The other half of a negotiator’s ammo comes from the ingenious compilation of a player’s on-the-field stats.
“We have a research staff who are given a simple task: go find any statistical pattern that presents our players in a positive light,” Steinberg says. “Their job is to produce the most amazing statistical categories possible to buttress our salary demands.”
Steinberg’s staff produced this gem during a salary arbitration: Wade Wilson was the first quarterback in history to throw 6-plus yards per attempt and make the Pro Bowl in the same season. “That’s a not a statistic published in The Sporting News,” Steinberg says, chuckling.
There are other ways Steinberg uses stats. In negotiating Drew Bledsoe’s deal, he started with the assumption there is always a premium paid the first quarterback picked in the annual college draft, and an even bigger premium when the first player picked overall is a quarterback. Next, he pointed to the impact another client, Troy Aikman, had just had in winning the Super Bowl for Dallas.
For client Thurman Thomas, the Buffalo Bills star running back, he provides analysis of what happens every time Thomas touches the ball, how he consistently makes things happen.
“We put together statistics, bar graphs and colors that jump off the page,” Steinberg says. “At times we’ll make a compelling audio/visual presentation. We can also anticipate the arguments a team will make and refute them. Of course, the methodology has to be sound or the results can be questioned.”
o o o
For all his success in negotiating some of the biggest deals in sports, Leigh Steinberg is worried about the future of his men and the games they play.
Athletes, he says, must understand the fleeting nature of their careers and build other skills toward the day they can no longer throw a long bomb or hit a ball out of the park. “The big mistake for an agent is to simply classify a player as a function of his bank book,” Steinberg says. “The only certainty I have, in every athlete I represent, is that at a young age, he is going to have to transition into another line of work.”
As for fans, he says agents must be reminded that sports is fantasy.
“Sports exist as an entertainment industry,” Steinberg says. “It’s not like putting bread on the table. It’s a discretionary expenditure. To the degree we keep feeding fans stories of free agent salaries, we’re destroying the games. Agents have a responsibility to keep the games affordable.”
END, PART TWO
Part Three: Power Players
Read the sports headlines lately? The scores have been superseded in importance by salaries and free agency. Everyone’s getting rich except the guys footing the bill – the fans.
But read past the headlines. For every college player signing a first pro contract for $70 million, there’s a veteran quietly accepting an equally huge reduction in pay. It’s the first sign of reality hitting the sports salary spiral, indicating there is a ceiling on how high all this madness can go.
Whereas free agency at first seemed a license to steal for athletes and their agents, there’s obviously a price. What increases the fans don’t bear, the players apparently will.
Don’t believe it? Well, if someone who still makes hundreds of thousands of dollars but must accept deep, deep pay cuts can be described as a victim, that’s what the system has turned pitchers Jack Morris and Bobby Thigpen and quarterback Mark Rypien into.
Morris swallowed hard and watched his base salary slip from a career-high $5,425,000 in 1993 to $350,000 in 1994. Thigpen dropped from $3,416,667 to $200,000. At least they found jobs; Rypien was cast adrift after refusing a new contract that would have cut his pay by more than two-thirds, from $3 million in ’93 to $1 million this fall.
This is the side of contract negotiations no agent wants publicity for. It’s a bold slap of reality following years of player successes in gaining ever increasing free agency and a bigger piece of the revenue pie. Agents who spent the 1980s and early ’90s squealing, “Gimmee, gimmee, gimmee!!” without regard for the impact such wanton greed now have some serious explaining to do. Ditto for their unions, and, for that matter, the teams who eagerly made dollar commitments for today without considering the reverberations tomorrow.
All across pro sports, unproven rookies get the keys to the bank and yesterday’s stars are being unceremoniously shown the door. Athletes are being split into three camps: the haves and have-nots are being joined by the hads.
Many NFL stars fell into a black hole unintentionally created by their union’s last collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with the league. In an effort to gain greater free agency for players and yet avoid total anarchy, the union compromised with management. In exchange for allowing veteran players with more than five years experience and whose contracts expired beginning in 1993 to become free agents (four years experience as of ’94), the NFLPA agreed that teams could designate “franchise” players who were pre-empted from free agency as long as they were paid accordingly. “Accordingly” meant at least matching the average salary of the top 5 players at the franchise player’s position. The “franchise” tag sticks with the player until their contract expires or they retire. Then the team can tag a new player.
A second layer of top athletes, labeled “transition” players, were created as a bridge between the old system and total free agency. Teams were allowed two “transition” players by guaranteeing them the average salary of the top 10 players at their position.
Players and their agents had no say in accepting or declining the “franchise” or “transition” tag. And once the two transition players’ relationship with their current team ends, the teams don’t get replacements. According to the NFL Players Association (NFLPA), about half the NFL’s franchises designated transition players.
It sounds like an equitable system, but agents say it didn’t work. Most rue the day the terms “franchise” and “transition” were adopted.
First of all, the salary numbers were based on the preceding season’s totals, not the current negotiating season. And while other teams could bid on franchise and transition players, the athlete’s current team retain first right of refusal, meaning if it matched an offer, the player stayed put. Finally, teams were given great latitude with franchise or transition players. While player contracts expire annually on February 28, teams knew what it would cost to keep their designated stars months earlier.
“It worked to the detriment of all the transition players,” says Edward Sewell, president of the San-Francisco-based Professional Sports Center. “Having the transition title meant that none of those players – the best in the NFL – ever got any job trips or offers from other teams because the system, or the fraternity, said, ‘You don’t mess with my transition players and I won’t mess with yours.'”
“You use that word,” Sewell says. “I call it a gentlemen’s agreement. You have to prove collusion. It’s a strong word.”
“Any agent who believes that, we have the strongest anti-collusion language of any sport,” counters Michael Duberstein, NFLPA director or research, citing Article 28 of the collective bargaining agreement. “All they have to do is come to us and we will take action. Not one agent has come forward to say the clubs are colluding.”
Sewell hit the transition situation with two different clients: Ricky Reynolds in 1994 and Ronnie Harmon in 1993. A third client, Cris Dishman, was listed by the Houston Oilers as a franchise player. But because of management fraternity, Sewell says, the trio received little or no outside interest.
“Their teams took that to mean, ‘Oh, gee, you’re not that valuable to anybody but us. Therefore, we’re not going to pay you market value, we’re going to pay you whatever the minimum is at your position,” according to Sewell. “Plus they are able to keep these guys out of the marketplace, away from other teams, while they scratch their heads and decide whether they really want to sign him. So they got the best of every world. They lock their best talent in, kept ’em away from the marketplace and they were able to rescind the offer at any time. As long as the title stays with you, odds are you’re going to stay with that team because you don’t get offers to move.
“In Ricky Reynolds’ case,” Sewell says, “the Bucs kept him out of the marketplace starting in February when there were some choice jobs available. There was one in Seattle that Nate Odoms got. Ricky had plane tickets to Seattle but the Seahawks decided they would do the Odoms situation because it didn’t require any kind of match. In other words, when they negotiated the deal with Nate, they had Nate Odoms. Versus negotiating with Ricky Reynolds and waiting a week to see if the Bucs were going to match it. In that week, they would have lost Nate.”
By the time Tampa Bay lifted the transition tag from Reynolds and freed him to negotiate, Sewell says, all the available jobs at Reynolds’ position had vanished and his salary was in freefall. Whereas his transition value was $1.7 million, Sewell’s first offer for his client was a mere $750,000. Fortunately for Reynolds, Ray Perkins, the former Bucs coach who drafted him, had moved on to the rebuilding New England Patriots and still believed in his skills. Perkins persuaded his boss, Bill Parcells, to take a chance on Reynolds, who signed a deal worth in excess of $5 million for three years, including $2.23 million for ’94.
“We went from Diet Pepsi to Dom Perignon,” Sewell says.
Reynolds, of course, did better than his former teammate and co-holder of the Bucs transitional tag, Reggie Cobb. Cobb was entitled to a $2.6 million salary until the Bucs yanked his tag. Forced into the open market, the best he could do was $1.1 million with Green Bay.
“Helluva drop,” Sewell says. “Never get that back.”
Michael Duberstein doesn’t think agents such as Sewell understand the transition label.
“Transition players were imposed in the settlement by the league,” he says. “What they wanted was to protect some of their better players. They would not make a deal, there would be no CBA, without the ‘transition’ and ‘franchise’ system. It was because the owners were so scared they were going to lose all their best players. No one here proposed it or wanted it. The goal of the Players Association has always been total free agency when the player’s contract ended.
“Did it work out the way we anticipated? Most of the clubs didn’t use it. The reason is, they don’t want to guarantee that much money. By the time we hit ’95, very few clubs will be able to designate transition players, anyway,” Duberstein says.
Duberstein thinks the real problem agents have with the transition and franchise tags is it makes agents virtually unnecessary to players.
“I don’t see anything rational about an agent saying “transition” and “franchise” doesn’t work. All it did was guarantee them free money,” he says. “If I was a transition or franchise player who accepted a contract, I wouldn’t give an agent a penny. He didn’t do anything.”
The NFLPA encourages its members to pay their agents. But for transition and franchise players who accept a salary – without negotiation – equal to the top 5 or top 10 players at their position, Duberstein thinks there might be a case for withholding a commission. “In a situation where there was no negotiating, I don’t know what the (union’s) ruling would be,” he says.
The CBA has its positive points, particularly that so many players gained free agency when their current contracts expired. But labor and management wind up trading big salaries for loyalty. That’s a two-way street, however. The players are loyal to whomever pays them the biggest salary. And when a player’s salary gets out of whack with his or the team’s performance, the team’s loyalty to him ends.
“What big salary gets you is loyalty to yourself,” Sewell says. “It pushes you into a selfish mode. Unfortunate, isn’t it? The days that a fellow would always be identified with one team are over.”
Another creation of the latest NFL collective bargaining agreement was the league’s first salary cap.
Ken Staninger, president of the Montana-based Staninger Sports Agency, represents former Washington Redskins quarterback and Super Bowl XXVI MVP Mark Rypien. Rypien found himself on the wrong side of the salary cap this year. Although Rypien, who had taken his team to the playoff in four of six years, wasn’t burdened with either the franchise or transition tag, his agent’s negotiating hand was damaged by several factors. Rypien endured an injury-plagued ’93 season and, when he did play, he didn’t play well. The Redskins had a lousy season overall (4-12), eventually hiring a new head coach, Norv Turner. And the former Super Bowl champs were stocked with aging, over-paid players who tied up resources.
“It was a horrendous situation” for Rypien, Staninger says.
Earning a high draft pick and a shot at either Tennessee QB Heath Shuler or Fresno State QB Trent Dilfer, Rypien became expendable and that’s the way the Redskins handled him. The team offer its former star a 1994 salary offer of two-thirds less than he made in 1993 – and that was their second offer. It lacked any incentives whatsoever, according to Staninger. Rypien declined it and was released. But by then, as in Reynolds’ situation, every other team in the league had settled its starting quarterback position, leaving Rypien high and dry.
“What the Redskins did was a calculated move,” Staninger says. “They had Mark under contract. On February 1 they got a new coaching staff. At that time they were not sure they could draft the quarterback they liked. Then they decided they could. They kept Mark to the last possible date. Mark thought the cut they were asking him to take was unreasonable, that it was time for a complete change. The biggest reason we turned the Redskins down was they would not consider any incentives. We took that to mean we weren’t wanted.”
Staninger and Rypien’s frustration is the flipside of the good timing you hear so much about. Their timing couldn’t have been much better when Staninger insisted on a one-year contract in 1991 and Rypien subsequently took the team to the Super Bowl. “At the time, we were rewarded,” Staninger says. “Now, with Mark coming off his worst year, the timing couldn’t be worse.”
Again, the NFLPA’s Michael Duberstein thinks this is a case of an agent who just doesn’t get it.
“Players who used to get released after camp, just before the season started, and would have to scramble are now getting released in spring,” he says. “Now they have more time to find a place to play. . . The fact players are being asked to take less money is not unique to the salary cap.”
Maybe Rypien just became another overpaid superstar caught in the back-end vortex of outrageous salaries banging head-first into a salary cap. Before there was a salary cap, nobody worried about coming out the other side.
“Now I think some of these big deals are going to turn into nightmares,” Staninger says. “There are few guaranteed contracts. Next year, you’re going to see even more big players who will be released or asked to take huge cuts. The teams, the GMs, don’t like it any more than we do. But their hands are tied. This is not a unique year. You’re going to see it every year.”
+ + + +
Not everyone thinks there’s anything new or particularly worrisome in the expansive disparity between the multi-millionaires on a team and the rest of the guys putting on their uniforms one leg at a time. Don Fehr, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, thinks it’s just a matter of separating the regulars from the utility players.
“That’s always been true,” he says.
Salary caps just exacerbate the differences, says the only man who stands between baseball players and the sport’s inevitable push toward a cap. “The biggest problem with a salary cap from a fan’s point-of-view is it inhibits your ability to improve the team. And everybody knows the way to improve a business is to make better investments ahead of time. That’s why basketball (which has a cap) doesn’t have anything like baseball’s balance. The big market teams always win and the salary cap multiplies their advantage.”
Fehr doesn’t see any harm in letting the free market determine player salaries from here to eternity. And pointing out baseball set an all-time attendance record in 1993, he doesn’t interpret that as fans complaining.
“It’s great gossip and people like to pontificate on it,” he says. “But I don’t think (salaries) affect customers.”
H. Irving Grousbeck agrees with Fehr on this point. Now a lecturer in management at Stanford Business School, Grousbeck made a lot of money in cable television and in 1992 toyed with purchasing the San Francisco Giants. But he backed away after studying the team’s books, salary and revenue prospects.
“It’s a very revenue-driven business,” Grousbeck says. “The Houston Astros had a $14 million payroll two years ago; one club today has a $50 million payroll. Some of the teams with $37 million payrolls are making money; some with $29 million payrolls are losing money.
“As a would-be owner,” he continues, “I hate to see the balance of power go to the players. And I hate to see the players grouse, but I don’t think it’s the death-knell for baseball. Am I concerned about player salaries? Not if I’m the Yankees. Not if I’m the Toronto Blue Jays. But the Giants are going to lose money this year because they play in Candlestick. If they played in St. Petersburg or Cleveland, they’d make a lot of money.”
But Grousbeck, a huge fan of the game, doesn’t think fans are being turned off by seeing star players become jillionaires. Would they rather hear less about it? “Sure,” he says. “Does it keeps fans from the ballpark? I don’t think so.”
Money is a part of sports these days. Apparently it’s not a serious depressant. If it were, it would dampen attendance everywhere. And there are plenty of places attendance is up, not down.
+ + + +
Salary inflation hasn’t yet hit the NHL as hard as it has other leagues, but it’s coming, if increased attendance, wildly successful expansion franchises and rising ESPN television ratings are any indication.
“It has been moving up,” says Greg Jamison, chief operating officer of the expansion San Jose Sharks, a team which reached the playoffs in only its third season. “Higher salaries have been paid out in the last two or three seasons.”
All of his players are represented by agents and Jamison thinks that’s for the best.
“I think agents are just one of the players in sports,” he says. “They’re a part of our business, just as players, owners and domed stadiums are. It all works together. I don’t blame agents for where sports is today. There are good agents and bad agents, just as there is good management and bad management. We’re all players and have to take equal responsibility. And equal blame, maybe.”
Jamison hopes hockey can learn from the salary cap stumbles of the NBA and NFL as it moves toward locking up a similar vehicle with its players union. “I think the successful leagues and teams have to work together,” he says. “The players are who people come to see skate and play to the best of their ability. But management, owners and athletes have to be on the same page. There has to be a common goal.”
The NBA cap works for Jamison, but as a football fan, he’s worried about the impact the new NFL cap will have on the San Francisco 49ers. “We’ve heard a lot about the 49ers having to let people go to stay under the cap,” he says, nervously. “Cap management is building stock in your team and being prepared for the future. Sometimes there’s player movement that’s not fully understood (at the time). Why is a player who is popular suddenly moved? Maybe he came out and said, ‘I’m not re-signing with the club.’ Maybe to retain value, they moved the player. I have a lot of respect for GMs in all leagues who have to maintain a mix of veterans and youth and know when to make a move. It’s an art form.”
Where is it all going? There’s no easy answer.
“Where’s the airline industry going?” Jamison retorts. “Every industry has to ask itself that. When I was a kid, a pack of gum was a nickel. What’s the ceiling on gum? I’m not trying to be trite. These questions – sometimes, in a free market, things try to shake themselves out. We try to do long-term planning. We try to anticipate (cost) increases here, revenues there. The league has goals; individual teams have goals. The Sharks’ goals are simple: we want to win every game; we want to sell out every game. We want the best players. We want them happy. And we want the fans happy.”
+ + + +
“The biggest problem I have with agents is the number of holdouts,” says Peter Hayes, managing editor of College & Pro Football Newsweekly. “Guys in their rookie year miss camp, marquee players hold out till the middle of the season. Most of these guys want the best deal possible. They want security. Nobody can begrudge them that. But I think it’s the agents controlling the player, filling his head with nonsensical things. It’s bad for the game. Football isn’t alone in this. All sports is full of this nonsense.
“I think the average fan who supports a team has a hard time understanding,” Hayes says. “It all comes down to performance. Emmitt Smith performs and they still love him. If the players perform on the field, the fans don’t care if they’re making $10 million or 10 cents.”
Hayes blames agents for damaging young players by pushing them into professional drafts too soon, thereby sacrificing their education and full college eligibility. “These guys who come out early – many go late in the draft or they don’t make it at all,” he says. “Where did they get the idea to come out early? Agents.
“I think a lot of good players are getting a lot of bad advice,” Hayes says.
Soon, they may get their advice from a new source: sporting goods manufacturers. Nike hit the industry first, formalizing its informal relationships with Bo Jackson, Deion Sanders, Alonzo Mourning, Harold Miner and several other superstar athletes last summer into Nike Sports Management. Former CBA commissioner Terdema Ussery is president of the subsidiary.
“Our focus is to work with a select few Nike athletes on everything but their playing contracts,” says public relations director Keith Peters. “We work on everything in their portfolio, from business advice to finding other endorsements. It’s our charge to go out and market them.”
Mourning was represented in his last Charlotte Hornets contract negotiation by agent David Falk, who handles Michael Jordan. But instead of sticking with Falk for the rest of his business, he dribbled over to Nike. “He worked with David Falk on his Hornets contract, paid the going rate,” Peters says. “All the rest of his business and accounting, soup to nuts, is what we do for Alonzo.”
Traditional player reps are dismayed by Nike coveting their turf and predict the company will not get off the ground in its new venture. Too much potential conflict of interest, they say.
“Nike says they’re going into the business. I think that’s a grave mistake,” Ken Staninger says. “Nike may try to cherry-pick the superstars of the future. And it would make sense if Nike is successful that Reebok will follow suit. But if they’re out competing with us, we’re not going to be too excited talking about a Nike contract when we have a superstar. You don’t want to support a company competing with you. And you’re always going to be concerned about client interference.”
“To the degree that a lot of agents do more than just player contracts,” Peters says, “perhaps they feel they’re competing with us. But to date, we have not negotiated a player contract. There may be a misunderstanding about that.”
Nike gets a pretty good deal by avoiding player contracts. No worries about certification, no outside control over its fee schedules and its athletes are already household names. The company also doesn’t waste time and money chasing raw talent or developing it. “We’ve become aggressive in a selective way,” Peters says. “Each year we hope to get one or maybe two baseball, basketball or football players, the kind of athlete it makes sense for us to invest resources in and who has the potential to stand above the crowd and be attractive to other sponsors.”
Peters figures Nike Sports Management’s competition are the full-service sports agencies and agents: IMG, ProServ, Falk and Leigh Steinberg. And he knows Nike won’t be the last manufacturer to go this route. “I wouldn’t be surprised if some of (our competitors) were to do it,” he says.
Staninger doesn’t like it one bit.
“Nike is so big,” he says. “I don’t know why they’d want to get into this aspect of the business.”
+ + + +
What do fans think of all this? Many are pissed. They want their favorite teams well-stocked with top talent, but mostly they want a return of debate over RBIs, shots on goal and free throw percentages, not option years and incentive clauses.
“Most people hear salaries – three years, $5 million; two years, $8 million – we just can’t comprehend them,” says Ken Silverstein, a veteran sports radio talk show host who spent eight years with Houston’s KTRH before joining WFNS in Tampa Bay. “These numbers roll off our tongues like we’re talking about Monopoly money. We see it coming out of our pockets because we see prices going up – tickets, hot dogs, parking. Fans understand that; they don’t like it.”
Rising sports ticket prices in football, basketball and hockey are right on the cusp of forcing the middle class out for good. Instead of season tickets or partial season tickets, the average family of four might spring for one or two games a year as a special outing. “It’s pretty mind-boggling what it costs for a family of four – or two,” Silverstein says. “Sports has become a very white-collar thing. It’s not good, but that’s where it’s going.”
“I have very mixed feelings,” says Dan Gutman, lifelong baseball fan and author of several books including Baseball Babylon (Penguin) and It Ain’t Cheatin’ If You Don’t Get Caught (Penguin). “On one hand, utility second basemen hit .210 and get million-dollar salaries. That’s outlandish. On the other hand, the players were screwed by owners for 100 years. Now it’s their turn to get even.”
In general, Gutman finds the emphasis on salaries a bore.
“I don’t want to read about arbitration and how much this guy is going to get paid. It’s not what sports is all about,” he laments. “I speak to a lot of fans. The overwhelming feeling is that the high salaries have hurt the game. It puts players out of touch. They don’t dive for balls.”
Still, he says, baseball ticket prices haven’t exploded the way they have in other sports, so as long as Gutman can still get a $6 general admission seat at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, he’ll keep his gripes about Darren Daulton’s million-dollar deal to himself.
(The following story appeared in Tampa Bay Life in 1989.)
Rosie Owen just wanted to cash a check. What she got that clear November morning was a few minutes of sheer terror that will last a lifetime.
“I had just gone up to the teller and she was verifying my check,” remembers Owen. “I heard an awful commotion behind me. I looked back and I saw – it looked like a giant, a man wearing a stocking over his head! He was a big man, close to six feet. He was heavy, kind of clumsy. He was waving a gun – he looked nervous. He told everybody to hit the floor.”
Twenty miles from Disney World, at 10:15 a.m. on November 14, 1988, the Florida National Bank branch at 6306 W. Colonial Drive in Orlando was being robbed by an awkward, six-foot-three, 370-pound bandit wearing pantyhose over his head, green surgical gloves and armed with a .22-caliber revolver.
“He kept yelling at the tellers to hurry up and put the money – all the money – on the counter.” He particularly asked for 50s and 100s.
“If you give me any dye, I will come back and kill you,” threatened the bank robber. “I’ll come back and blow some brains out!”
When the tellers had emptied the money from their drawers on the counter, the bandit came to Owen, 46, who was face down on the floor. He hit her on the shoulder with the gun and said, “Lady, get the money.” He gave her a gray plastic bag to collect the bundles of cash.
“I have no idea why he singled me out. Trying to make my life more miserable, I suppose,” says Owen. “I was so nervous, I kept fumbling the money. He said, ‘Hurry up, lady, or I’m going to start shooting!’
“He was really nervous. Afterward, everybody kept saying he must not have been a professional because he took so long. But part of the reason he took so long was I kept dropping the stupid money.”
Outside the bank, Glen Lannon, a 26-year-old landscape worker, was stuck in traffic, driving his company truck to a job. As usual, he was paying attention to everything but the other cars on the road. “My girlfriend always gets on me for looking all around and not paying attention to traffic,” he says. This particular day, his wandering eye caught something more interesting than a fast girl in a pretty car. This morning, he saw a big man hurriedly exit Florida National Bank and run to a silver 1985 Dodge Caravan.
“I seen him running. He’s a big boy; kinda looked suspicious. I said to myself, ‘I know what that guy’s doing,'” recalls Lannon. “I said, I’m going to catch that fucker.”
Just then, a red dye packet smoked and exploded inside the bandit’s money bag. Realizing the money was no good to him, he dropped it in the parking lot and took off in the van.
“I called my supervisor on the truck’s radio. I said, ‘Hey, guys, I’m going to follow this bank robber!'” Lannon’s boss had a phone in his car and alerted authorities. For the next 20 minutes, the young landscaper – who noted the van’s license plate had been removed but who didn’t know the bandit was armed – followed the bank robber from a distance, passing their changing locations on to the police through his boss.
The bandit became suspicious at a red light.
“He opened up the van door and leaned down like he was looking under the van,” says Lannon. “He looked back and seen me and made a quick turn-around. The police nabbed him right after that.” A .22-caliber revolver and stocking mask were found on the van’s floorboard. Ironically, the man was captured in front of an Orange County Sheriff’s Department sub-station.
(Lannon says Florida National Bank sent him a $1,000 reward and a letter of thanks. Ironically, the same bank later refused him a new car loan. “I didn’t have enough collateral,” says Lannon. “Too risky.”)
Back at the bank, the police brought the bank robber back in chains for witnesses to identify. Rosie Owen had no doubt this was the man who robbed the bank – Hillsborough Community College Director of Student Services William J. “Bill” Strawn.
“I cannot express the fear in words,” says Owen. “You start thinking about your family and the Lord. I thought, ‘If this is it, forgive me for what I’ve done … ‘ It was kind of hard for me to sleep for about a week after it happened. I’d start falling asleep and I’d wake up having nightmares about it.”
* * *
The jails of this country are filled with innocent men and women, law enforcement officials will tell you. They say that sarcastically because few ever admit to committing crimes of which they’ve been convicted. Bill Strawn is different. He confessed to robbing banks, first to the police, then to the Orlando Sentinel, then to Tampa Bay Life. Strawn has seen the evidence, he knows he had possession of stolen money, he knows he tried to get away. He claims he doesn’t know why he did these things and, if you believe him, he has no memory of the events themselves. He says he was in a seizure-induced trance each time a robbery occurred.
Strawn had actually robbed four Orlando banks by the time he was caught, netting more than $80,000. The junior college administrator says that in each case, he only remembers getting in his car to go to work and then – much later – coming out of a trance and finding a sack of money in his van.
“It’s a very strange case,” says FBI Special Agent Larry Curtin. The FBI was involved in a joint investigation of Strawn; Curtin says Strawn is not a suspect in any further bank robberies. “It’s unusual that someone in the position Mr. Strawm occupied would be arrested for and suspected of bank robberies. He was gainfully employed.”
Strawn, his eyes red and welling up with tears, insists his capture was the first time he knew for sure where the money came from.
“What would you do,” he asks, “if you were riding along and looked down and saw a garbage bag, a plastic bag, with money in it, wrapped up with things around it where you could see where it was from, and you didn’t know where it came from? What would you do? Would you go to the FBI?
Would ‘ya? No sir. Would you go to the police? What do you do? I had that dilemma. I didn’t know what to do. I wish, now that I look back, I had called Lee (Elam, his attorney and friend) and said, ‘What do I do?’ But I didn’t. I was afraid that all they’d do is arrest you. ‘Man, you robbed a bank, you’re under arrest.’
“Well, they caught me at it,” he says with resignation and shame. “They took me back to the bank several hours later, handcuffed, chains around my waist and walked me up to the window outside the bank, people everywhere, all around. And the people who had been there and witnessed it were inside saying yeah, that’s him.
“Thank God it was that (bank robbery) and not something more serious. Thank God I didn’t have this urge to go out and kill somebody or something like that. I look back now and I think it was like kleptomania or something,” he says. “It had to be. I don’t know how else to describe it.”
Legal and medical authorities don’t know how to describe it either.
A lifelong victim of concussions, seizures and two major auto wrecks, Strawn’s family, friends, ministers, former students and physicians are attempting to paint a picture of him as a long-suffering man in pain, a man beleaguered by demons, voices and blackouts. They have written 66 letters to Orlando Circuit Judge Jeff Miller begging for leniency and mercy on Bill Strawn’s tortured soul.
Independent experts and even Strawn’s own psychiatrist say his behavior could be explained by complex seizures and brain damage once – maybe even twice. But four times strikes all four of them as suspect. They’re not buying the former educator’s story.
Rosie Owen has read all the newspaper reports about Bill Strawn’s mental health problems. Unlike the bank robber’s friends and family, however, she saw what he did. She was the one he threatened point-blank with a revolver.
“He’s pulling wool over their eyes,” she says. “He’s no more sick than I am.”
Strawn pled no contest to four counts of robbery with a firearm in an Orlando courtroom. “It’s obvious,” says Strawn’s Brandon-based attorney, B. Lee Elam, “that on the one count (robbing Florida National Bank), he wouldn’t stand a chance, outside of the fact that he admitted it to a newspaper reporter. And I don’t think he is capable of standing trial. We got through the plea part and I had my fingers crossed. Then they told us to sit in the back of the courtroom while they filled out some paperwork. But we never got to the papers. The bailiff tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘You’ve got a problem.’ And I looked at him (Strawn) and he was having a seizure. So I knew he would never be able to get through a full trial. And I’ve noticed every time I’ve had occasion to have him come into the office, no matter how small an area or topic we’re covering, he has seizures. The smallest stress causes it. I was concerned that maybe trial stress might be life-threatening. … I just didn’t feel comfortable taking him through the stress of a trial. One count or four counts, it’s all the same stress on him. Maybe this is something a lawyer shouldn’t say, but Bill’s not only a client, he’s the closest friend I have. I had to consider that. I had to put that into the equation. Would I take a chance on seriously injuring a friend as well as a client?”
Some might suggest that Elam – who won an out-of-court traffic accident settlement for Strawn in 1983 and donated his services to Strawn pro bono – should have set aside friendship and let another lawyer handle the criminal case. Arguments can be made that instead of pleading Strawn nolo contendre, Elam should have attempted to have him declared not competent to stand trial. At least one nationally recognized psychiatrist examining his case believes that if Strawn were unable to contribute to his defense or control his behavior – demonstrated by the courtroom seizure – his own psychiatrist and attorney had a responsibility to seek to have him declared not competent to stand trial.
The crimes Strawn has pled to carry minimum mandatory sentences of three years each because a weapon was involved. In Florida, bank robbery is a crime punishable by life in prison.
* * *
While the cash from the Florida National Bank job was recovered, none of the money from three previous robberies has been located. Strawn says it never will be found.
“The first time, I put it in a dumpster at the college,” he says. “I put it in two bags so you couldn’t see through it. They came everyday and dumped our dumpster, about 4 o’clock. I put (the money) in it about 3:30. I looked out and there was this guy out there looking for aluminum cans. I had never seen that before – he was going through the dumpster. I nearly had a heart attack. I went out and chased him off. They finally came and picked it up.
“The others – I burned ’em in a 55-gallon drum (at his Plant City farm). I think if somebody went out there and looked in that drum, if they could identify ashes, they could identify that. … I thought about flushing it down the commode, but that’s a lot of flushing. And burning it is not easy. It takes a lot of gasoline and you gotta drop it in a few (bills) at a time. It’s not easy, it’s tough. You gotta stir it. It’s hard to burn money – it’s the hardest thing to burn in the world. I used gasoline and I stirred it, more gasoline, and I stirred it.
“I was scared to keep it. All I could think of was it had numbers on it so if you spent it they’d catch you anyhow. But I didn’t want to spend it. I’m really not a bank robber. I’m not a bank robber.”
Rosie Owen and the staffs of three banks – Florida National Bank (robbed Nov. 14, 1988), Southeast Bank (robbed May 1, 1987 and May 16, 1988), and First Union Bank (robbed Sept. 9, 1987) – might disagree.
* * *
“When I received the call from Orlando telling me Bill had been arrested I wondered if I knew him at all.”
Those are the words of Jean Strawn, Bill’s wife of 35 years. She wrote them in a letter to Orange County Circuit Judge Jeff Miller, begging for mercy on her husband. (Mrs. Strawn declined to be interviewed for this story. She attempted to have this story stopped after her husband had been interviewed at length – despite the presence of his attorney. She also threatened a lawsuit against Tampa Bay Life – “You’ll be sorry if you print any story about us … This is our lives and you better not print this.”) Two weeks prior to her husband’s arrest, Mrs. Strawn purchased the gun he used in the Florida National robbery at a garage sale for $20.
Strawn remembers the moment he had to call home and fess up to what had happened.
“(When) I called my wife, I said dont say anything. Just listen. I said, ‘I want you to divorce me. Tell my grandchildren I died. I want you to forgive me.’
“When I was arrested,” he says, “I was laying out on the concrete, face down. There must have been 30 guys with guns and I was cryin': ‘Please shoot me. Please do.’ I started to get up and run, so they would. And then I thought, no, if I do that, they’ll think I’m really guilty of something.”
Strawn is a beloved figure in Plant City and at Hillsborough Community College. The inexplicable twist his life has taken has left friends and former co-workers wondering if they, like Jean Strawn, knew Bill at all.
“The whole community was just in total shock,” says Sadye Martin, a city commissioner and former mayor of Plant City. “He was just such a role model in the community for so many young people. When they said what happened, I thought it had to be somebody else. He was an upright citizen.”
Barbara Kent, editor of the Courier in Plant City, wrote an editorial about her friend that began, “Some things are hard to believe” and ended, “Say it ain’t so, Bill.”
“I can’t recall ever hearing anybody saying a bad thing about him,” says Donna Allen, HCC’s director of communications. “If you were down in the dumps, he’d do something to cheer you up. I thought the world of him. He was one of the nicest co-workers I had. I can’t imagine what happened. There’s something not right for someone to have that kind of double personality.”
Two administrators at HCC – Safety and Security Manager James A. Lassiter and Plant City Provost Charles Deusner – wrote sympathetic letters on Strawn’s behalf to attorney Lee Elam, which were forwarded to Judge Miller. Lassiter’s letter was written on school stationery; Deusner’s was not.
This is the second case of administrative mischief to rock HCC in the 1980s. Back in 1982, Ambrose Garner was pressured to resign as president of the community college after charges he sexually harassed female professors, administrators and students (“Sexual Politics at HCC: Did Ambrose Garner Go Too Far?” chronicled in the July, 1982 issue of the now-defunct Tampa Magazine).
* * *
Bill and Jean Strawn met as students at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green and have been together ever since. They live – along with all four of their parents, Strawn’s brother Richard, twin sons Terry and Perry, 29, daughter Valerie, 32, their spouses and children, six cows, five rabbits, five horses, two geese, a donkey and a goat, 21 people and 20 animals in all – on a 15-acre Plant City farm with an estimated market value of $300,000. They have lived there since 1981.
The entire extended family eats together every night at 6 p.m. in a screened-in dining room. “I use the (Strawns) as an example of what people and families should be like,” says family friend and attorney B. Lee Elam. “They live together; they eat together in a common area. They’re the most amazing family.”
There are a lot of little details about Bill Strawn that describe the kind of man his friends and family know. Born in Norfolk, Va. … Rose to rank of Eagle Scout. … Member, Sigma Nu fraternity at Vanderbilt, which he attended on a football scholarship. Tossed out of Vanderbilt in freshman year when his picture appeared on the front page of the Nashville Tennessean during a panty raid. … Transferred to Western Kentucky and added shotput and wrestling to his athletic prowess. … Declared 4-F by the military because of a bad shoulder. … Drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles as a linebacker/center but left after a few weeks in camp because of his shoulder. … Earned bachelors and masters degrees in counseling and guidance from Western Kentucky. … Learned to shoot a gun in ROTC. … Taught high school in Portsmouth, Va. and college in Kentucky (Lees Junior College) and West Virginia (Marshall University). … Enjoys gardening, fishing, crabbing. … Conducts bible study every Sunday at his home. … Doesn’t smoke and hasn’t had a serious drink of alcohol since 1955.
During 20 years with Hillsborough Community College, Strawn made a lot of friends and rose quickly from a guidance counselor to department head to dean of student services, in which he oversaw the library, counseling, advising, financial aid, custodial staff, admissions, records, job placement services, student government and newspaper. After a 1979 auto wreck, he took a lesser position as director of student services at HCC’s Plant City campus. Still, he was well-compensated for his work and years of service – he earned $46,500 in 1988, $52,000 in 1987. Strawn was suspended with pay from his position immediately following his arrest; he resigned in January.
Early reports indicate he was desperate for cash when an antique business run by his son Terry, 29, went bad – their combined debt was said to be $14,000. From 1982 to 1986, Bill also owned Heaven Sent Nursery. Both businesses operated from the Strawn compound in Plant City. In a telephone interview from jail immediately following his arrest, Strawn told the Sentinel, “I was going to work and I stopped and said, ‘I’ve got to get some money.’ I was in debt badly.”
That may explain one robbery, but not four.
Most people who earn $46,500 have a measure of debt between credit cards, auto loans and home mortgage. Few turn to bank robbery. They negotiate consolidation loans, extended payment terms. Anything to avoid the public humiliation of inventorying your trousers, shoes, blouses, knick knack shelves, bandsaw, fishing rods and surrendering your automobile to the bank.
According to their voluntary petition for personal bankruptcy, Bill and Jean Strawn owe $114,553.37 on their mortgage, $9,000 on the Dodge Caravan getaway van (since repossessed) and $19,252.57 in credit cards and medical bills. (Their list of unsecured debts includes notations for First Union Bank, Florida National Bank and Southeast Bank – institutions Strawn robbed – all with the word “undetermined” where the amount should be listed.) It is a lot of money but leveragable with Strawn’s income and property holdings. He knows he went to an extreme. And that’s what makes his case so strange. Bill Strawn doesn’t go to extremes. By all accounts he’s level-headed, even-tempered and quite bright.
Or at least he was until those two auto accidents.
“I used to be a hyperactive person who was everywhere,” says Strawn. “Now I’m slow. I don’t function like I used to. This is no cop-out, but I’ll guarantee if I hadn’t been in those two accidents, this would never have happened to Bill Strawn.”
* * *
Do you know Orlando very well?
I don’t. I really don’t.
You’re not familiar with the streets?
I have been to Orlando probably 10 times in my whole life. And usually when I go there it’s to a deans’ meeting and then right back.
Have you ever been there for a week?
No. In fact, I don’t have any idea how I found these banks. And frankly, I don’t even know where they are. If I had to take you to them right now, I couldn’t take you to any one of them.
You were charged with four armed bank robberies. Did you commit any bank robberies?
I had the bag of money. I dont know. … But from everything I’ve read, I think I did. I didn’t know what I did. I didn’t have any idea of what I did, from the time I left Plant City. I really couldn’t tell you. I didn’t know what I was doing. I really didn’t.
You don’t remember driving from Plant City to Orlando?
You don’t know why it was this bank and not that bank?
I have no idea. But I’ll say this: It’s not uncommon for me not to know what I did that day. It’s not. There are so many days that I couldn’t tell you one thing that happened to me all day long. On the others, I came to somewhere around Lakeland when I was driving back. I thought, ‘Oh, God.’ The last one, I came to when I was coming out of the bank.
You realized then that something was wrong?
That’s when I realized I had done something wrong, when I found the sack there. I wish I’d been caught the first time.
You remember burning the money the first time?
Oh, yeah. I was perfectly sane then. But I’ll tell you this – there wasn’t any way that I could figure out – and I still can’t figure out – any way to have turned it in. Especially the second and third times.
I’ve got my whole family saying, ‘Why didn’t you turn it in, why didn’t you tell us?’ My wife, especially.
Did she have a hard time understanding why you didn’t confide in her?
Well, yeah. Because I confide in her in everything. But this was a horrible thing to me.
The money was gone. What did you do then?
I prayed every night that I wouldn’t have this thing happen again. One day when this happened, the next day, two guys from the FBI came to visit me. It was about something unrelated, nothing to do with this. But it scared me to death. I thought, they must know. They must be checking me out.
* * *
Strawn’s claim to being unfamiliar with the locations of the banks he robbed is dubious at best.
The first two banks, Southeast and First Union, are both located on Sand Lake Road, mere blocks from Interstate 4. “Easy-on, Easy-off,” as read the fast-food drive-thru signs that beckon to hungry highway travelers. Theoretically, Strawn – who allegedly used a lever-action rifle in at least one of these crimes and a short barrel shotgun in others – could have exited I-4, robbed a bank and been 10 miles west toward Plant City before police arrived. Except that Sand Lake Road provides access to Orlando’s Hotel Row, International Drive, making ingress and egress slow at best. Authorities say banks in this area are frequent robbery targets; Southeast has at least six video cameras visibly trained on its lobby.
Explaining the choice of the Florida National Branch may be more complicated. Its West Colonial Drive location is far off the beaten trail, five miles – and a few dozen traffic lights – west of I-4. Along that route Strawn would have passed branches of almost every bank in town. But Strawn likely knew a faster route than I-4 to Colonial Drive because of his many years as a junior college dean. State Road 435 intersects I-4 and ends north at Colonial. How could Strawn, who claims to barely know Orlando, find his way across town on such a local road? Perhaps because Valencia Junior College sits midway between the bank and I-4 on S.R. 435. Even on this route, he had to pass branches of C&S, Barnett, Sun, and Orange Banks before arriving at Florida National. The route also passes the Mystery Fun House and under-construction Universal Studios Tour.
Just after being arrested, Strawn told the Orlando Sentinel he chose the tiny Florida National Bank branch over another institution across the street, The First Financial Center, abecause there were fewer cars in its parking lot.
What puzzles most people examining these crimes is – if Strawn planned the robberies – how he ever expected to get away unrecognized with a stocking mask over his face. His sheer girth – 370 pounds – made him memorable to witnesses; he couldn’t possibly be confused with a medium-build bank robber.
* * *
Tom Oatmeyer wrote a letter to B. Lee Elam, Strawn’s attorney, to be used in his defense. In it, Oatmeyer balances tales of Strawn’s humanitarian gestures with what he calls “unusual occurrences.” Once, he writes, his friend Bill gave a speech to HCC students and suddenly spoke in Turkish. Four Turkish students thanked him afterwards for his comments and asked where he had learned their language. That same morning, his secretary found a note he had written – in Arabic. A student had to translate; Strawn couldn’t read his own note. “It said that Bill would come by to pick up the president of Hillsborough Community College in a rickshaw,” writes Oatmeyer. The stories are also confirmed by another witness and letter writer, Earl Hartman. “It was very obvious … these experiences were tormenting Bill,” according to Oatmeyer.
In February, Jean Strawn asked Oatmeyer to “come quick, something was wrong with Bill.” He arrived to find Strawn in the midst of one of his spells. He announced he was leaving his family and never coming back.
“He left with nothing,” writes Oatmeyer. “I decided to check the airport because Bill loved flying. I arrived to find a ticket in Bill’s hand for a northern city. He had no luggage, (he was wearing) a short sleeve sport shirt and (was) going to a city that had temperatures in the 30s. When I went to him, he was in a daze. He acted like he didn’t know me. I kept talking to him until finally I reached him. At that point he said, ‘I don’t know why I have this. I don’t even know anybody in this city.’ He was now ready to go home, shocked at how he even got to the airport.”
There is a huge body of circumstantial evidence such as Oatmeyer’s letter that supports the claim of Strawn family members, friends and physicians that Bill Strawn is mentally ill. While certainly biased, the authors build a caseload of bizarre twists in Strawn’s life. They tell wildly different stories which form an undeniable pattern of abnormal events and behavior.
o Joe Menendez wrote a very moving letter about Strawn. After describing his familiarity with Strawns blackouts and seizures, Mendendez got to the root of their relationship: “Many years back he counsled (sic) me, week after week because I was in a very bad stage of depression and I was about to kill a few of my coworkers (sic). If the Lord have (sic) not put this man in my path I just don’t know what I would have done.”
o William Seeker is now president of Florida Keys Community College in Key West, but from 1970 to 1979, he was Strawn’s supervisor at HCC. “I noticed Bill would have periods of memory lapses and/or blackouts. He did not remember conversations we had, assignments I had given him or meetings that he had attended. At one particular staff meeting he actually went into what I would call a convulsion.”
o Strawn himself tells many examples of his troubles, including pre-cognitive experiences wherein he foresaw a friend having a heart attack or his father being struck by a train.
Being at work did not make him immune from seizures and blackouts; secretaries, teachers and administrators used to cover for him regularly.
“My secretary and I worked on a grant one day,” he remembers. “We worked on it from seven in the morning until 5:30 at night. We finally got it finished and we mailed it. We were so happy. The next morning when she came in, I said, Stella, we’ve got a big job today – we’ve gotta get this grant done. I had already worked on it for an hour and she said, ‘We worked on that yesterday.’
“I had secretaries who would really help me, who would keep up with me if I wouldn’t come back on time. They’d try to find out where I was. They probably should have been getting my salary.”
o Jean Strawn’s eight-page letter is the most revealing and poignant plea to Judge Miller. In it, she traces a number of steps in the life of her husband that helped set him apart from most men. As a high school history teacher in his younger days, he gave anti-communism speeches at night at Baptist churches. Drawn by a need for teachers in Appalachia, he moved his family to Jackson, Ky. There was the time he pulled a man from a burning car shortly before it exploded. Or when the bleachers collapsed at a basketball game and Strawn pulled them apart to release trapped arms and legs. A neighbor stopped breathing and Strawn got him started again with CPR.
Despite all of these super-human acts with neighbors and strangers, Strawn faltered when it came to dealing with family crisises and job stress, according to his wife. “He would want to lie down and within minutes he was out of it and talked out of his head a lot. One time he really scared me because he was talking to his dead grandfather. (Strawn) said he wanted to go with him. I pleaded with him for about an hour not to go because I needed him here. He has also seen his dead uncle Francis. He tells me about places we used to go and it would be so real to him. He said he could taste the chicken at Farrells which was a place back in (our) college days.
“I used to accuse him of being too weak to face up to problems. I told him every time I needed him most he folded up on me. Now that I look back he was having a form of seizure then whenever he got under pressure or stress.
“His life has been memorable,” Jean writes. “Some day I know I will find out what God’s plan for him really is and then I’ll know why Satan has tried to destroy him.”
On the day she wrote the note, Jean Strawn writes, her husband had survived 15 seizures.
* * *
It is difficult to compile an exact list of incidents contributing to Strawn’s head injuries because there are insufficient medical documents and only family accounts to go by. But problems seem to have begun at age seven, when a baseball bat fractured his skull; other incidents include a number of concussions, two broken jaws and a fracture skull in 1952 and 1953 while he was in college playing football; multiple hospitalizations in Bowling Green, Ky.; a 1979 head and neck injury in a Tampa automobile accident that left Strawn unconscious for an hour and paralyzed for ten hours; a second auto accident, in Brandon in 1982, resulted in back surgery. He won out-of-court cash settlements in both accidents.
Strawn has suffered from grand mal and petit mal seizures off and on since 1975. Grand mal seizures take place when the victim falls down, begins convulsing on one side, bites his tongue, foams at the mouth, wets his pants and/or wakes in a stupor, unaware of having had the seizure. Petit mal seizures cause the person to stop, sit silently and not know what is going on around him, then regain consciousness and not realize anything was amiss. They are considered physical, not mental, problems caused by electrical disturbances in the brain’s temporal lobe.
Strawn’s frequency of either seizure type occurring varies between daily and every few weeks depending upon how well he controlled he is medication-wise. Stress is widely considered a trigger to the seizures. Strawn has had seizures at home, church, school, doctor’s and lawyers office and in court and jail. They manifest themselves differently from incident to incident.
“There are times when I can’t carry on a conversation, times when I forget a whole day,” he says. Sometimes he sees and hears things that aren’t there. “I would actually see these creatures telling me to hang myself. I’m not the kind of guy to do that. But there were times when I really felt like I was going to do it.”
* * *
Is Bill Strawn telling the truth? Could seizures and blackouts have caused him to rob four banks over 19 months?
A quintet of nationally recognized experts in epilepsy and neuro-psychiatry say yes, it is possible that Strawn was not in control of his actions when he committed the first bank robbery, maybe even the second. But none is convinced such a pattern could occur four times.
The four authorities consulted by Tampa Bay Life for comment who were not directly involved in the case were given details during individual telephone interviews, including hearing direct comments from the deposition of defense psychiatrist Dr. Walter Afield and from an interview with Strawn. Participants in the “psychiatric autopsy” were:
o Ann Scherer, director of Information and education for the Epilepsy Foundation of America in Landover, Maryland.
o Dr. Dietrich Blumer, a psychiatrist specializing in epilepsy at the University of Tennessee Epicare Center. The Epicare Center is the largest center for the treatment of epilepsy in the Southeast. Blumer was recommended as an expert by the Epilepsy Foundation of America.
o Dr. George Dohrmann is a neorosurgeon at the University of Chicago and was recommended as an expert by the Brain Research Foundation.
o Dr. Helen Morrison, an M.D. who is certified in general, child, adult and forensic psychiatry, has been an examiner for the American Board of Forensic Psychiatry. Morrison – who was recommended by Dohrmann – is also director of The Evaluation Center, a neuro-diagnostic program in Chicago for the evaluation and treatment of people with organic and emotional problems. She has examined serial killers Michael Lockhart and Bobby Joe Long as a witness for the prosecution.
o Dr. Walter Afield, a former professor and chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science at the University of South Florida College of Medicine, was retained by the defense to examine Bill Strawn and form conclusions about his mental fitness. Afield is an accomplished psychiatrist who has a private practice in Tampa and works as an expert psychiatric witness in criminal trials across the country. He worked for the defense in the trials of Bobby Joe Long (opposite Dr. Helen Morrison), William Cruise and fire-bomber Billy Ferry.
Afield says that in reviewing a battery of neuro-psychiatric tests (including EEG, Luria, Halstead) and documented seizures, he has no doubt that Strawn has suffered severe brain damage and intractable seizures. He says that Strawn did not undergo the now common magnetic resonance imaging tests because he was too big to get in the machine. There could have been a “definite correlation” between Strawn’s seizures and the bank robberies, according to Afield, until he learned the number of crimes had grown from two to four.
“That was the hardest part for me to understand,” says Afield. “That was a little difficult. I’d be a little hard pushed with the evidence that four were due to that. But you do have a man with brain damage and it can make a man do strange things.”
The expert consultants agree that criminal activity is rare as a result of even complex seizures, but not out of the realm of possibility for a man with Strawn’s history of head injuries and brain damage.
According to Dohrmann: “Some people who do things out of character can have something wrong with the left frontal lobe, impairing their judgement or understanding of right and wrong. The frontal lobe’s function is to ride herd over a person’s impulses. When that’s gone, people can be quite impulsive. Normally they wouldn’t say, ‘I don’t know what I did.’ They’d say, ‘I did it – so what?'”
All three doctors doubted epileptic seizures alone could cause Strawn’s repeated criminal activity. But they believe the seizures might be part of a greater neuro-psychiatric malady.
“There are a tremendous number of possibilities,” says Morrison. She says robbing a bank would not be unusual in the “Fugue” state, a form of amnesia. In this state, someone can do incredible things, like disappear only to “wake up” years later. It is caused when people are unable to handle extreme stress and become amnesiac as a result. Another possibility she cites is multiple personalities, which the mind creates as a defense mechanism. But she is ultimately skeptical of a stereotyped crime being repeated over and over with the same highly organized pattern.
“Why not just rob a bank and a gas station or a speeding ticket?” wonders Morrison. “If he has brain damage, why would it be limited to bank robbery? Does brain damage explain the robberies? It doesn’t. Can you definitely connect the damage to the action? No, you can’t. No one can prove this man’s seizures led to the robberies.
“A thousand things can aggravate seizures,” she continues. “If the person is going to have a seizure, why wouldn’t he have a seizure while robbing the bank? Or while going through the complex act of burning the money? Does that seem like the action of someone who doesn’t know what he’s doing? He was scared? One time, okay. Twice, maybe. Three, four times? Forget it. It doesn’t take any psychiatry to figure that out.”
* * *
What should society do with Bill Strawn?
He robbed four banks at gunpoint. That seems beyond dispute. Pre-meditation is more to the question. Did failing health and looming debt push Strawn to knowingly commit these four criminal acts? Can his claims of being in a trance-like state be borne out by medical evidence? And if he was not responsible for his actions, does the state still have its own responsibility to his victims to mete out some form of justice?
In some ways, society has already begun taking its measure of the Strawn Family.
“We’ve gone through bankruptcy, we applied for food stamps the other day” – Strawn pauses as tears well up in his eyes – “we’re about as poor as you can be. I’ve taken my family through a lot of embarrassment, I know. I can’t get near water, I can’t get near machinery, I can’t drive a vehicle. And yet everything I’m trained to do requires those kinds of things. I can’t go up steps, I can’t walk near a durn ditch that’s got six inches of water in it – I could drown. I almost drowned one night in the bathtub, taking a bath. Now I have to take showers. Part of the real punishment I’ve had is seeing my family go through this. Every day is something in the mailbox. Every day is another call. Every day there’s another hell to face.”
Dr. Walter Afield, who examined Strawn, thinks the accused is ashamed, embarrassed and of the opinion he should be punished for what he did. That worries Afield.
“He’s depressed, suicidal,” the psychiatrist believes. “If he makes it to jail I wouldn’t be surprised if he kills himself. He’s not a jail kind of guy.” Afield feels that because of Strawn’s continuing need for medical attention, justice, the community and Strawn would be better served by community control. “House arrest is cheaper on the taxpayer. If he falls down on his head, we’re going to get a $50,000 bill.”
“Obviously, the gentleman’s going to prison,” says Assistant State Attorney Gary Dorst, who is the new prosecutor on Strawn’s case. Dorst notes that sentencing statutes in firearms cases have been rewritten to take discretion out of the hands of judges. They are required to issue minimum mandatory sentences and there is no “gain time” for good behavior in firearms cases. He estimates Strawn could get anywhere from six years to lifetime in prison or 100 years probation. One possibility that could reduce prison time would be to run sentences for each bank robbery concurrently. “It’s a crime punishable by life,” says Dorst. “He’s looking at four life sentences. That’s the possibility. He probably won’t get it.”
“I wish they would put me in a situation where I could do something worthwhile,” says Strawn, wistfully.
Whatever Bill Strawn’s fate is, he has changed Rosie’s Owens’ life forever.
“I have a great fear of going in the bank,” says the woman who felt Strawn’s gun at her back on the day he was caught. “It was a frightening experience – it goes with you. It’s something you never forget.”