Rich Paul doesn’t so much make moves as much as he makes waves. As the agent to (and longtime friend of) LeBron James and founder of Klutch Sports Group, an agency with an increasingly star-studded roster of NBA talent (besides James: Anthony Davis, Ben Simmons, and Draymond Green, for starters), he’s emboldened his clients to leverage their star power in unprecedented ways. James and Davis, especially, have structured contracts and made demands that have helped orchestrate a paradigm shift in basketball, one where elite players can reshape the landscape of the league in a single off-season. Along the way, Paul has become the NBA’s face of player empowerment.
So earlier this summer, when Hollywood’s United Talent Agency bought a stake in Klutch, the rumors immediately spread that Paul was looking to bring his talents to a whole new arena: the NFL. Now, nearly six months later, turns out the rumors are true: Paul has hired agent Damarius Bilbo, whose roster includes Pro Bowlers like Melvin Gordon, Jarvis Landry, and Alvin Kamara. (That’s on top of recently signing top college prospects Chase Young and Jeff Okudah, Ohio State players who could potentially go #2 and #3 in this year’s NFL draft.)
But Paul didn’t hire Bilbo just for his roster. He hired him because he saw that Bilbo had a similar respect for his clients as people first, not just athletes. “What I saw in him is the same thing I saw myself,” said Paul, via phone last Friday. It’s this Jerry Maguire-Rod Tidwell deeper-than-business connection that Paul credits for Klutch’s success in shifting the NBA landscape, giving his company a “credibility, soul, [and] identity” that he says other agencies don’t have.
“You can't empower anybody if you don't care,” Paul continued. “It's okay for you to say you care when you are in front of me doing my contract, but we know that's false. We see a thousand people walking around that used to play a sport that they can't even get their representation on the phone.”
In carrying the Klutch torch, Bilbo’s going to be tasked not just with signing up players, but stretching their influence beyond the lines of the football field. “I think it's important for the athlete to have a voice,” says Paul. “With athletes, it's almost to the point that you make so much money playing a respective sport that, how dare you say something? That cloud has been there for a long time. I think the most important thing is allowing the athlete to understand that, ‘I do have a voice’.”
As Rich Paul and LeBron paved the way, the NBA, to its credit, has helped elevate its top talent, understanding that the shinier its stars, the better its overall product. The NFL of 2020 has proven itself far more resistant to minting empowered superstars eager to voice, say, nuanced thoughts on social justice and political issues, the way LeBron does. It’s a tricky road forward for Klutch and new hire Damarius Bilbo.
We spoke with Bilbo to figure out what he’s learned from Rich Paul, what he teaches his young clients, and how he expects to shake things up in the NFL.
What do you think attracted Rich to you?
I am what I represent. I played the game. I was National Player of the Year when I came out of high school. I was a guy who pursued the NFL dream. So everything that the clients are, I was.
I was raised in a single-parent household. I used sports as a platform to get to college, to meet people, and to explore and travel the world. I got on my first plane when I was taking recruiting visits. I still have family members that have never been on a plane. So, sports was a way to open up doors and create that platform of getting to know people and getting more experience out of life.
Rich has had success in the NBA being able to empower players. I'm curious where you see the opportunity to break into the NFL.
When [Rich] started his company, he first started with LeBron James. It's always that first client that you use as the template. My first guy was Jarvis Landry. When I first met Jarvis, it was all about: how do you define yourself? Don't call yourself an athlete. Don't call yourself a football player. Refer to yourself as a professional first—then an athlete. Because that's the only way people are going to take you serious in business. If I call you an athlete, then I'm only going to expose you to athletic things. If I call you a professional, then an athlete, that means we have a component of business that we have to address.
A lot of these guys are missing opportunities simply because of how they define themselves. They don't want to jump on the calls with the CEOs. They don't want to be close to the business people, because they call themselves football players and basketball players. I think that's the great thing about Rich. He gets the guys uncomfortable, and lets them know that your score and your contracts shouldn't be the ceiling for your success.
In the football world, guys don't really understand their brands and the values. They're kind of like, "Let's just fall in line, and let's go." But when you see guys that are outspoken about everything—whether it's politics, whether it's human rights, whether it's different things that affect the world—why should we just sit back? Because when it comes to the game, everybody's watching us. That's where I've been most impressed with clients: their ability to not just be outspoken, but to be heard, making sense and addressing things that really mean something to them.
You see it with very few guys in the NFL. Like Richard Sherman. I love the fact that you don't have to agree with Richard Sherman, but Richard Sherman has his opinion and he speaks his opinion. He has a platform. The culture that Klutch has created is one that allows the athlete to choose a value outside of the court and off the field.
Why do you think that outspokenness has not existed in the NFL the way it does in the NBA?
[With the NBA,] I can sit in the stands and you're so close to the action and the entertainment. Football is a game that's played with a helmet. It hides your identity. It hides certain expressions. It hides certain things you say. But the helmet has to come off. You're not in the helmet 24/7. I think guys are so used to being covered, that it becomes part of their identity.
It seems like the NFL encourages a "stay in line" mentality in a way that the NBA seems more open and flexible. I wonder, A, if you think that's a fair characterization, and B, how do you think about navigating that?
Well, I do think you're correct. Again, once the culture is created, the next draft class… they have a certain way of kind of falling in line. The trend in the NBA has been to be vocal and to be outspoken, and to have value and show value outside of just the court. In the NFL, it's been to be quiet. You have a few guys that express themselves. One of my clients is Alvin Kamara—I think he's one of the best to do it. Alvin Kamara came in the league with a nose ring. He's very proud and he's very confident in terms of who he is. Even when he did his Airhead deal, he had his nose ring in. He wasn't scared to lose the deal because he had a nose ring. He was like, "That's who I am."
You have very few players like the Alvin Kamaras of the world, that are not afraid of being themselves. I think when players start to see that, they start to follow suit and say, "Look, I'm different. I'm not like everybody else. I can play football, but I'm just not a football player. I'm more than an athlete."
“You've seen some amazing athletes like Deion Sanders build lifelong brands. They used the platform—they didn't let the platform use them.”
You can't have this conversation without bringing up Kaepernick, because a large part of what we're talking about is the environment around the NFL. To pick someone from the NBA: LeBron has been extremely outspoken about socio-political issues. Is there as much room for that in the NFL? It feels like there's a bit more institutionalized resistance to it.
It's yet to be fully figured out with a certain company that partners with the NFL on a social justice issue. I think the more players that do it and do it the right way, it's better for all. Because the name of the game is to be better people, to be better brands, to be better businesses. You only get that when you allow those that are participating in the brand, when you get their voice and you hear that voice. I think what Kaepernick did was just use his voice and use his platform.
It's no different than the NFL and breast cancer. “Think pink.” They turned a whole month into something that benefits people across the world with breast cancer. The NFL could have easily taken what Colin Kaepernick did and turned it into a whole month, done programs around it, no different than they did with breast cancer. I remember when the breast cancer thing first happened and people start popping up with pink socks and jerseys, and they started auctioning those off. That was a beautiful thing for women and women that had breast cancer. So why is this any different?
The owners are the ones with the power. The owners are the ones that can make a change, but you employ people that have the voices that people listen to. There are very few owners, outside of Jerry Jones, that people listen to—or that even speak. So train the players on how to address certain issues. Don't let coming to the facility just be to get a workout and watch film and practice. They need to meet with someone inside the organization, [to talk about] what they’re passionate about and what difference they want to make as community leaders. When you look at guys like LeBron—and the roster that Rich has with Klutch—that's the message he sent and that's what will continue to be done.
I only hope that my professional athletes on the NFL side will understand and see that there's a right way to do those things. There's a right way to get the message out and make a change. Not to come off as if you know more or you've experienced more because you're a professional athlete making millions, but because you truly want to make a change and you want answers to the questions that a lot of people have that don't have the platform that you have.
You talked about educating your clients. With guys like Chase Young or Jeff Okudah, what are some of the lessons you try to impart to your younger clients coming into the league?
You've got to have a brand, and you've got to have a plan outside of football. Your only brand can't be the team that's going to replace you when you stop performing. Your only plan can't be to make money off a contract. The teams will end, and the contract will end, so don't put all your eggs in that basket. Use that basket, use that platform, to build other things. That's why athletes go broke. That's why athletes are not transitioning well.
The way you go in is usually the way you go out. So, let's go in with the thought that, "I am bigger than the contract. I am more than the first round pick. I'm not just a number on this 53-man roster. I am a brand. I am a business, and I do have a plan."
You have to approach your life and your career from a holistic standpoint, and appreciate some of the things that are around you. Once the NFL is gone and once that platform is gone, you don't get it back. You've seen some amazing athletes like Deion Sanders build lifelong brands. They used the platform—they didn't let the platform use them.
What's something that you’ve learned from Rich?
I always say in a business that tries to bury you, just go ahead and play dead. Rich is not a play dead person. So, in working with him, I had to kind of come out of my shell and know that people are going to talk about you. People are going to say things, they're going to assume things. But it's about what the client thinks about you. It's what you're sharing with the client and their families. We don't care about the industry. We don't care about what other people are doing. It’s all between the lines and the rules, but we're in a situation where we can really make a difference and change these young men's lives. So: be different. Don't be the same as everybody else. That play dead stuff? We don't do that at Klutch.
How did you sign Jarvis, originally?
It was his brother, man. Jarvis's brother was a hell of a football player that went to a small school. I built that relationship with Jarvis. I left an agency that had just sold and I started on my own. I had no clients. The same thing I'm sure LeBron saw in Rich, Jarvis saw in me. He saw a vision. He saw that I saw he was going to be a star before he even became one. He saw a plan.
I'd be lying to you if I didn't say that, at times, I wanted to stop doing this business. I wasn't the one with the big company. Guys liked me, but they wanted to go the way in which was cool. Now I’m looking at what Klutch is building, and me being affiliated with Klutch, it gives them that factor, but we're equally yoked, so it still gives value to what I've done on my own, in terms of educating and empowering the athlete. That's always what I say: I don't recruit. I educate and empower. Because if I educate you, I'm giving you the information, and if I empower you, you're going to make the right choice. I don't have to recruit you.
We all know what recruiting is. It's a lot of words, and a bunch of bull. I got recruited in college. There was 50 schools—all y'all can't be the best school for me. So give me the information, give me the education, and let me be empowered to make that decision. That's what these athletes need. They're so used to being recruited versus empowered, versus being educated. You know what I'm saying? That's what I've learned about Rich. He don't recruit. He educates. He empowers.
How the Klutch superagent is reshaping the NBA in his own image.
Originally Appeared on GQ