Supplemental retirement income

Updated: September 1, 2004, 1:13 PM ET
By Mark Kreidler | Special to ESPN.com

Michael Johnson is about to go where few highly successful athletes have gone before.

And not long after that, he's likely to understand why.

Jeremy Wariner
APJeremy Wariner has a bit of showmanship in him, much like his new agent, Michael Johnson.
In a move that has us scratching our heads looking for modern precedent, Johnson, a five-time Olympic gold medalist, has decided to become an agent. He'll represent Jeremy Wariner, who said over the weekend that he'll forego his final two years of eligibility at Baylor to turn pro.

Wariner's decision came at the far end of an Athens Games in which the 400-meter specialist pulled down two gold medals and further endeared himself to Johnson, himself a former Baylor sprinter. What's more, according to the Dallas Morning News, the team that will surround Wariner is virtually the same cast and crew that supported Johnson during his brilliant pro sprint career: Clyde Hart as coach, Janie Miller as marketing rep, Dale Smith as physical therapist and Baylor assistant Danny Brabham as strength and conditioning specialist.

That's great news for Wariner, who is getting about as strong a leg up as is possible in his attempt to make a successful transition from college to the pros. Whether it's great news for Johnson is another matter entirely -- although the one thing you can state with certainty is that he knows at least a little about what he's getting himself into.

Johnson's move is audacious by pro-stud standards. You've seen the normal pathway followed so many times that it is by now almost rote: Athlete has great college career, goes pro, does well, rakes in the bucks, semi-retires to a life of guest-spot TV commentary, investing, and a garden variety of endorsement packages. Risk-laden, it ain't.

But this agent thing, it's another matter entirely. The reason virtually no top athletes make the transition into the business is that they've already been on the other side of the agent-player relationship and have seen how difficult it can be when you're the one who isn't playing, isn't getting the glory, but is doing the dirty work.

Michael Johnson
Michael Johnson knew how to make everyone take notice of his accomplishments.
Not that Jeremy Wariner represents for Johnson a foray into either dirty work or a full career as an agent, of course. Still, this is fairly eye-popping stuff. Most ex-jocks don't want to do the heavy lifting of agentry, brokering deals, negotiating contracts, haggling over money and then taking only the kitty-cat's portion of the booty.

Johnson could move himself into a position of strong power in the track market fairly quickly, assuming he can prove out as an agent. He knows everybody. He's got a champion's reservoir of goodwill. He has contact around the world and in critical corporate niches like Nike. And in the particular case of Wariner, Johnson knows exactly what it takes to thrive on a global level as a sprinter.

"It's going to be great having Michael as my agent," Wariner told the Morning News. "He knows all the ins and outs of track and field, and he knows all the meet promoters."

What Johnson doesn't yet know, although he soon will, is the staggering difference that one chair can make. He won't be doing the running. He will be doing the running around.

It isn't the most polite business in the world, agentry. They throw as many elbows in the boardroom as they do running the curve. Sports agents in America tend to be portrayed as slick fat cats, but it's a grinding sort of an existence, a pay-you-on-Tuesday mentality.

There hasn't been a high-profile player in any sport in the recent era who found athlete representation to be an attractive second career option, and maybe it's because the jocks already have seen too much. They've seen the way they, or others, deal with agents and with contracts and with endorsements and appearances and all the rot. They've seen the prima dona routine a hundred times and want nothing to do with being on the receiving end of the nonsense.

Johnson may ultimately decide not to head that way fully; after all, his deal with Wariner is born of very specific circumstances: both Dallas-area residents; both coached by Hart; both sprinters. Then again, Johnson may well see a sport in which his presence could attract top-notch clients who want to be represented by a near-contemporary. He could consolidate a significant power base within track and field if his experience with Wariner goes well.

That, in the end, may prove more interesting than the fact that Wariner is one of the few Caucasian U.S. sprinters of recent times, which has been a dominant storyline through his college career. Michael Johnson is making a move of truly unusual standing, and it'll be fascinating to learn whether it's the prelude to a sprint or a false start.

Mark Kreidler is a columnist with the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com

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