Why power agent Don Yee wants to blow up the NCAA
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s Feb. 29 Analytics Issue. Subscribe today!
HIS ANCESTORS ARRIVED in California from the Guangzhou region of China in the 1850s, right around the time of statehood. The family settled in Sacramento, and a few generations later he started his first law practice in 1988, in many ways epitomizing an idealized version of the American dream. He is best known as the agent for Tom Brady, the Patriots star and “good friend” of Donald Trump. Living in those circles doesn’t identify Donald Yee as a radical.
Yet Yee seeks a revolution, and his weapon is not rhetoric but spreadsheets. Yee wants college athletes — particularly black football and basketball players — to look at the numbers, absorb the spirit of the University of Missouri protests last November, the Northwestern football team’s attempt at unionizing and the activism of the Black Lives Matter movement post-Ferguson, and begin to dismantle the runaway money machine that cannot exist without them. He noted in The Washington Post recently that Clemson coach Dabo Swinney earned $3.3 million in salary and Alabama coach Nick Saban earned more than $7 million. And as members of the ACC and SEC, respectively, their programs will receive a share of the conferences’ $60 million-plus postseason haul. The players get nothing. “The NCAA makes nearly $1 billion from unpaid labor. … No other large-scale commercial enterprise in the United States treats its performers and labor this way,” Yee wrote.
Black players fuel the engine, but when the game has squeezed the last yard of production from them, the opportunities to reach the highest levels of the sport from the nonplaying side are few, a historical injustice that measures such as the Rooney Rule can’t begin to correct. “Art Shell is the first black [NFL] head coach of the modern era. Since his hiring in 1989, a total of 17 black men have served as permanent head coach,” Yee tells me from his Los Angeles office. “During that same time, 17 different individuals have been Supreme Court justices, so no matter the hype of the Rooney Rule, the cold facts and numbers indicate that very little progress has been made.”
Reform from within carries a distinct power. Executed poorly, without transparency, such as with the Mitchell and Wells reports or a number of “self-reported” violations by universities, the result not only fails to produce satisfaction but often generates more cynicism from the public; it reinforces the belief that its purpose was to protect institutions and avoid accountability. “Reform” dissolves into public relations. But when taken up in earnest, even accountability with questionable motives behind it — Deep Throat W. Mark Felt or MLB whistleblower Jose Canseco — can topple a presidency or undermine a sport.
This is the promise of Yee’s advocacy. He is a football insider with firsthand knowledge of how a business works and the credibility to make people listen. He is exhausted, he says, by talk without much action and has reached the point of arguing for revolution: Blow up the system. Start over. Build anew. “This generation of players has more tools at its disposal than any other to be heard and to organize,” he says. “If they adopted a Twitter hashtag of #disruptthefinalfour for the NCAA tournament, they would at least start a discussion. And significant change typically happens through some discussion that is too large to ignore.”
If that makes Yee a radical, he is one as an abolitionist was, or as Joe Torre was in the 1960s, when he and his fellow baseball players believed in free agency, questioning the principles of a calamitous system elevated by emotion, tradition and greed instead of intellect and fairness. “Nothing will change for the players unless they take the responsibility of becoming something more than willing victims to this system,” Yee says. “At some point, you have to look in the mirror and ask yourself, ‘Who am I? What am I doing? What’s going on, and what am I doing about it?’ These players, they have all the power — they simply don’t realize it.”
This is hardly radical. What is radical, however, is the existence of a system that positions common sense as a revolution. It is a system that has been allowed to exploit its workforce for decades with only murmurs of debate, no real sustained challenge and the acceptance of people — fans, media, the players and especially the institution itself — who should know better.