Last January, a prominent NFL agent visited with a handful of clients at a sunbathed workout facility, in hopes of making a plea. One of the soon-to-be NFL draft picks had posted (and then deleted) a less-than-savory remark on one of his social media accounts, and the agent hoped to use the moment to his advantage. So he gathered the group together for a talk.
"[The post] was really late and it didn't catch on, and I wanted them to know this is [an example of] why it's better to stay off Twitter and Facebook and that stuff," the agent said. "… I went through it and asked them if they would either shut down their accounts or stop updating them until the draft was over."
Did any of the players listen?
"Not one," the agent said. "It's their decision. I can only ask so much. But after this draft – if they had seen what happened in this draft, it would have hit home. It definitely will next year."
That feeling is a significant theme in the agent community coming out of the 2016 draft – that media nightmares involving prominent players will make advisers push harder on future draft picks to limit unfiltered exposure. Particularly as it pertains to social media.
Multiple agents pointed at three superstars who had significant public-relations issues in the run-up to the draft. First it was Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith, who tweeted a video of himself before the combine that inadvertently revealed an orthosis rehabilitating nerve damage in his leg. Then it was UCLA linebacker Myles Jack admitting to the New York Post that he could eventually need microfracture surgery on his knee. And finally, there was the Laremy Tunsil video that swept through war rooms like a wildfire – revealed when his Twitter account inexplicably posted a snippet of him taking a bong hit through a gas mask. And if that wasn't problematic enough, Tunsil's Instagram account later posted what appeared to be text conversations exposing NCAA violations in the Ole Miss football program.
To be fair, all of those situations can be picked apart in hindsight. It could be argued that Smith's nerve issues and Jack's potential necessity for microfracture were already known by NFL teams. It can also be argued that the Tunsil video and screen shots could have come out from other anonymous places and still been damaging. But all three of the instances created a media frenzy at the worst possible time – and all three could have potentially been mitigated by the players, too.
If Smith doesn't tweet the video of himself in the nerve orthosis, he likely would have made it through the NFL combine without the media discussion about his knee being turned to nerve damage. If Jack doesn't say the word "microfracture," it wouldn't have given the media – and some war rooms – a little extra to buzz about in the hours before the draft began. And if Tunsil had changed the passwords to his social media accounts, there is at least some chance the bong video would have taken longer to mushroom in the minutes before the draft.
Now, all of those missteps will become staples in the agent playbooks when they are trying to restrict the stream on information coming from their future clients. Tunsil, in particular, will be a case study in how to clean up mistakes before they spiral out of control. And it won't simply be about staying off Twitter. They'll be about who is allowed into a player's circle. Two league sources told Yahoo Sports that the suspected culprit behind the Tunsil leaks is actually a former financial adviser – one who has allegedly had problems with other NFL players, and also been eyed by the NCAA in the past.
The sources said the adviser had access to Tunsil's social media accounts, and seized on them after being cut out of the player's camp in the run-up to the draft. Based on information from personnel sources, Tunsil's slide in the first round was most likely seven spots – from the Baltimore Ravens at No. 6 to the Miami Dolphins at No. 13. All told, the salary difference between those two spots is roughly $8 million over four years. And if Tunsil plays under a fifth-year option, the disparity could be several million dollars more in the final year of the deal. For agents, that's a powerful lesson on who to trust and whether or not social media is worth the risk late in the draft process.
With that in mind, agents are looking at the situations and considering how they are going to approach potential draft picks next year. After surveying a dozen agents from prominent firms, the initial reaction is a sliding scale from the drastic (eliminating social media accounts completely) to the cautious (requesting that players change passwords regularly and deny access to anyone … including the agent).
One agent said he got pushback from his rookies this year when it came to limiting anything they say about past injuries, and also pulling back on social media. But he now plans to use the draft falls of Tunsil, Smith and Jack to reinforce his demands with his next class.
Another adviser said he's considering some training that is a little more jarring – like shaping a coaching regimen around social media and cell phones that treat them like weapons.
"Players should consider them dangerous," the agent said. "But how do you get that into a 20-year old kid's head? Everyone has a phone. That's just the way it is. But when you're a college kid and you make a mistake, that phone is as dangerous as anything. … Look at Tunsil. He's responsible for his own actions. But whoever put that video out is an enemy. He cost himself millions of dollars, but they played a part in it. And whoever took that video in the first place is not his friend. That's what I'm trying to tell these guys. NFL players and college players have to get it in their minds that when it comes to their private lives, someone taking a picture or a video may not be their friend. Especially if they ever make a mistake."
Athletes have learned that the hard way – and not just in the NFL – as private pictures and conversations have made their way to the public in damaging fashion. One of the most recent trends has been for women to take "bed selfies" with famous athletes. One such "bed selfie" took place over the weekend, with a woman posting a Snapchat photo in bed of herself and someone she alleged to be a highly visible NFL draft pick. And this was after the Tunsil incident.
"The social media element is already on the list of do's and don'ts and the warnings and the seminars for these college players – especially the high-profile ones," said Senior Bowl director Phil Savage, who was formerly the general manager of the Cleveland Browns. "… Look, when you're one of these high-profile players or someone that's known publicly, you're likely not going to get along with everybody. The concern is that when you get sideways with somebody and they have an axe to grind, this information is available and they pop it out there on you."
Savage said the latest draft might be a peek into the future of how social media is handled both by colleges and the elite athletes who have the most to lose. Instead of cleaning up accounts late in the draft process, he could envision some players eliminating social media profiles for the entirety of their college careers.
"In college, I would say, no, social media isn't worth it," Savage said. "For a professional athlete, I would say these guys are all trying to build a brand. They could potentially build out future opportunities with a business, as a pitchman or what have you. I think as a pro athlete, absolutely yes [it's worth it]. But as a college athlete, honestly, I don't see any upside to it whatsoever."
Surely, it will be just one part of a larger debate. But it's a debate that few expected to have before last week. With NFL draft picks offered more avenues of exposure than ever before, it has opened up unparalleled risk to significant mistakes. That's not exactly a new argument in the agent world. But it certainly has a few new faces – and several millions in lost salaries – to make the conversation more interesting than ever before.