Rationalization as an Agent of Change Josiah Young

Analyzing the Impact of Rationalization on the Athlete-Representation Industry

Socio 57H at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

A HeadSet Sports, LLC Production


The Controversy of the "Rich Paul Rule"

The NCAA faced criticism in 2019 for its “Rich Paul Rule,” which initially required sports agents to have a bachelor’s degree to represent student-athletes transitioning to professional sports. The rule, named after degree-less but successful sports agent Rich Paul, was seen as unfairly targeting him and those from less privileged backgrounds (Shapiro, 2019). Following backlash, the NCAA amended the rule to allow agents without a degree, but with NBPA certification and a completed liability insurance exam, to represent athletes (Witz, 2019). While the amendment is seen as a victory for inclusion, it’s important to examine the bureaucratic forces of rationalization that led to the creation of such rules in the first place.



Key Terms and Definitions

What is a Sports Agent?

Sports agents, including athlete agents, are legal representatives for professional sports figures like athletes, coaches, and media personalities. They advise and advocate for their clients, especially in contract negotiations. The term “athlete agent” refers to an individual specifically authorized to negotiate or solicit a professional sports contract or an endorsement contract on behalf of an athlete (Shropshire, 2016). However, the terms ‘sports agent’ and ‘athlete agent’ are nevertheless often used interchangeably in sports-business literature.

This analysis explores the evolution of athlete agents, but the findings can be applied to all sports agents. In today’s competitive sports industry, agents play a multifaceted role in athletes’ careers, extending beyond contract negotiations due to the influence of rationalization.

Influential sports agent Nicole Lynn (right) stands with new signee, Ali Gaye (left), in preparation for the 2023 NFL Draft (Lynn, 2023)

What is Rationalization?

Rationalization (alternatively termed “McDonaldization”), as defined by American sociologist George Ritzer, refers to the process of replacing conventional and emotional thought patterns, procedures, and lines of reasoning, with more calculated, efficient, predictable, and controlled processes (Ritzer, 2021). Closely related to the principles of Taylorism and scientific management, the theory of rationalization comprises four distinct dimensions: efficiency, predictability, calculability, and control.

This chart defines each of the four dimensions of rationalization, in accordance with George Ritzer’s Theory of McDonaldization

What are Irrationalities?

According to Ritzer’s framework, irrationalities constitute the negative aspects and unintended consequences that arise from rational systems. Indeed, since Ritzer posits that the pursuit of rationalization often results in illogical, counterintuitive, and problematic results (Ritzer, 2021), this report will also identify the consequences and repercussions that accompany the push for efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control within the athlete-representation industry.

Purpose Statement

Why Study Rationalization & Sports Agents?

This analysis explores the impact of rationalization on the athlete representation industry, examining key themes and historical events. It identifies both positive and negative effects, using these insights to predict future trends.

The findings indicate that rationalization has significantly transformed the sports agent profession, enhancing efficiency and predictability through developments like free agency and large representation firms. It has encouraged the use of calculability by using data analytics in recruiting and contract negotiation, and introduced control measures such as agent regulations, professionalizing the occupation.

Despite irrationalities like agent inauthenticity and athlete dehumanization, study suggests that the benefits of rationalization override the costs, and that these irrationalities are manageable and in some cases surmountable.

This study advises current and aspiring athlete representatives to understand these dynamics to succeed in the growing athlete-representation and sports-business industries.


This section discusses the origins of the sports agent and its characteristics before rationalization. It sets a foundation for comparing early and modern sports agents, focusing on the job’s gig-like nature in the 20th century, initial responsibilities, and low barriers to entry.

A Gig Job in the Early 20th Century

The 1920s saw the rise of athlete representatives like C.C. Pyle, who pioneered lucrative deals for stars like Chicago Bears' halfback Red Grange. However, coaches, team owners, and general managers, who were accustomed to direct negotiations, often viewed agents with considerable suspicion and distrust. In fact, after Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi discovered a player with whom he was negotiating had been using the services of an agent, Lombardi immediately traded the player to another organization (Conrad, 2011). This initial resistance likely resulted from the "gig-like" nature of early sports agents, who, unlike their established counterparts today, often worked on short-term contracts and lacked formal long-term commitments with athletes work (“What is a gig worker?”, n.d.).

Image of Harold “Red” Grange (left) and Charles C.C. Pyle (right)

Source Credit: Oregon Historical Journal. (n.d.).

Responsibilities of the Early Sports Agent

Unlike their modern counterparts, early sports agents had a much narrower scope of responsibilities. Scouting was a primary function, with agents traveling to local games to find promising athletes (Ede, 2022). Negotiating contracts, however, was a simpler affair, mainly focusing on salaries and basic terms. While endorsement deals were important, the marketing and public relations aspects were far less developed compared to today's social media-driven landscape (Epstein, 2011). Financial planning and legal expertise were also less crucial in the early days (Conrad, 2011). Overall, the role of an early sports agent was significantly less complex and comprehensive than what athletes expect today.

Limited Barriers to Entry for Early Sports Agents

In the early 20th century, the barriers to entry for becoming a sports agent were relatively limited compared to today. Unlike today, there were no specific education requirements or certifications needed to become a sports agent. Anyone with a basic understanding of the sports industry and contract negotiations could potentially become an agent (Shropshire et al., 2016). In addition, the sports industry was not as heavily regulated in the early 20th century as it is today, resulting in fewer rules and regulations that potential sports agents had to navigate. Moreover, the sports industry was not as lucrative in the early 20th century as it is today, and accordingly, there was less competition for sports agent positions, making it easier for individuals to enter the field.

Image of sports marketing pioneer, Mark McCormack, who represented golf legend Arnold Palmer and founded IMG sports academy (image credit - [PGA, 2024])

The Impacts of Rationalization on Athlete Representation

The process of rationalization has transformed the sports agent industry. As athlete unions gained influence and governing bodies strengthened, the once freewheeling and self-governing profession became more controlled and professional. Regulations and barriers to entry ensured a certain standard of competence.

Free agency and advanced analytics like sabermetrics empowered both athletes and agents. These tools provided quantifiable data for recruitment and contract negotiations, making player value more calculable. Additionally, the rise of large-scale agencies, coupled with the digital revolution, streamlined operations and brought new levels of efficiency and predictability to the agent's game.

How the Rise of Athlete Unions Engendered Forces of Control

The mid-20th century witnessed a turning point for athlete representation. Player unions, once informal groups, evolved into powerful institutions (Shropshire, 2016). This not only yielded higher salaries for athletes, but also significantly bolstered the role of agents. Unions, traditionally handling salary negotiations themselves, increasingly delegated this responsibility to agents, recognizing their expertise.

Furthermore, the 1970s saw athlete unions and governing bodies exert greater control over the industry through regulations and certifications (Macklon, 2023). This is evident in the NCAA's recent agent certification program, established in 2018 ("NCAA"). This program ensures student-athletes receive professional guidance before entering the NBA draft. Similarly, the MLBPA requires prospective agents to undergo a rigorous application and vetting process, including exams and player recommendations.

These regulations exemplify the "control" dimension of rationalization, creating structure and predictability within the athlete-representation industry, while also safeguarding athletes and promoting fair play. Although these regulations might create barriers to entry, they also elevate the occupation from a casual gig to a profession and respectable career path. Certification ensures only qualified and ethical individuals become agents, ultimately enhancing the industry's reputation and fostering trust with athletes.

How the Birth Free Agency and Performance Metrics Reflect Forces of Calculability

Before the 1970s, athlete contracts functioned under a closed system. Clauses like "reserve" and "option" prevented players from negotiating their worth on the open market. This changed with the landmark Mackey v. NFL case (1970s). The NFL Players Association, led by John Mackey, successfully challenged the league's restrictions, paving the way for free agency (Lay, 2007 & Epstein, 2011).

Free agency empowered athletes and their agents. With multiple teams vying for a player's talent, negotiation leverage shifted. Skilled agents, like today's, understand that an athlete's contract value reflects market demand. Quantifiable metrics like points scored or yards gained became crucial in determining a player's free-agent worth (Scribe, 2023).

How the Rise of Inter-league Competition Reflects Forces of Calculability

The rise of competing leagues in the 1960s and 1970s further amplified salary increases. Leagues like the ABA (basketball) and WHA (hockey) sought established players to gain credibility. To entice talent, they offered lucrative contracts unseen before. Economist Roger Noll highlights this inter-league competition as a key driver of salary inflation (Noll, 2003).

In essence, free agency and inter-league competition created a dynamic where high performance in quantifiable metrics translated directly into significant salary increases, sometimes exceeding 100% within a few years (see Figure 3)

Figure 3: Effects of Interleague Competition on Pro-Athlete Salaries (Noll, 2003; Shropshire et al., 2016)

How the Rise of Large-Scale Agencies Made Athlete Representation More Predictable

Soaring athlete salaries, fueled by free agency and inter-league competition, demanded a new breed of representation, resulting in the growth of large agencies.

Mark McCormack (pictured in "Pre-Rationalization"), who represented Arnold Palmer, pioneered this shift by establishing the International Management Group (IMG), the first large-scale sports agency. Recognizing the limitations of solo agents, McCormack built a team with diverse expertise – contract negotiators, marketers, legal minds – to comprehensively serve a larger roster of athletes.

IMG's success triggered a wave of consolidation. Smaller 'boutique' firms merged into large corporations, such as Wasserman Sports, Octagon, and CAA. These agencies employ hundreds of representatives specializing in specific areas, including contract talks, marketing campaigns, and brand partnerships (Franklin, 1998).

Accordingly, the athlete-agent dynamic transformed. Unlike individual agents who relied on personal connections, large agencies offered a "productized" approach. Athletes still had a point person, but they also interacted with specialists throughout their career – PR, tax planning, contracts – ensuring holistic representation (Conrad, 2011).

This shift wasn't without drawbacks, as discussed later. Yet, there is no denying that these large agencies (as pictured to the left) have forever altered the athlete representation landscape.

Figure 4: Comparing Individual Sports Agents to Full-Service Firms

This figure compares some of the responsibilities of an individual sports agent with the responsibilities of a large-scale sports agency.

How Digitization Has Made Athlete Representation More Predictable

The digital age has been a game-changer for sports agents, streamlining their operations and boosting their reach. In the past, negotiations were slow and labor-intensive, relying on in-person meetings and mountains of paperwork (Shropshire et al., 2016). Now, contract management systems and cloud storage ensure efficient collaboration, secure document handling, and swift revisions. Email and video conferencing allow agents to work across borders and manage multiple clients simultaneously (Black, 2024).

This digital revolution extends beyond just operational efficiency. Social media platforms are a goldmine for showcasing athletes' talents to a vast audience. Agents can leverage these platforms to reach a wider audience than ever before, especially for athletes who might not have access to traditional scouting methods. Data analysis is another key benefit. Digital tools allow agents to analyze social media metrics and performance stats to make informed decisions about their clients' strategies.

The NCAA transfer portal also presents new opportunities. With easier athlete movement, agents have a wider pool of talent to identify and recruit. Finally, the introduction of Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) rights in 2021 opened doors for agents in collegiate sports. They can now represent student-athletes, helping them secure endorsement deals through social media. This digital revolution has transformed the sports agent landscape, making it more efficient, data-driven, and far-reaching.

Figure 5: Data Scouting vs Traditional Scouting

This image illustrates the efficiency associated with data scouting (e.g., remote, less people required), compared to traditional scouting.

Areas of Overlap

It is important to note that the examples of efficiency predictability, calculability, and control listed above are not mutually exclusive and commonly fall under multiple dimensions of rationalization. The following graph elucidates how the previously listed examples can be categorized under multiple dimensions of rationalization at once.

Figure 6: Areas of Overlap (Illustrated)

This figure shows how the effects of rationalization in the athlete-representation industry can be categorized under multiple dimensions of rationalization.


This section discusses the nature, responsibilities, and defining characteristics of the modern-day sports agent occupation after having undergone decades of rationalization. This section follows the same structure as section “Pre-Rationalization”, thus allowing for the comparison of the occupation before affected by rationalization and after being affected by rationalization.

From a Gig-Job to a Profession

The once loosely regulated world of sports agents has transformed into a true profession, attributable to a wave of control mechanisms. Athlete unions and governing bodies implemented licensing, accreditation, and ongoing training requirements, making the field more selective and professional. This is further evidenced by the emergence of an industry trade publication, The Sports Business Journal, professional organizations, the Sports Lawyers Association, and university-sponsored conferences, such as the Harvard Sports Law Symposium or the Sports Agent Bootcamp hosted at American University (Harvard Committee on Sports & Entertainment Law, 2023).

Acclaimed Sports Agents, Adisa Bakari and Jeffery Whitney, speaking at the 2024 Sports Agent Bootcamp hosted by Diverse Representation at American University

Responsibilities of the Modern Sports Agent

The responsibilities of sports agents are no longer merely contract advising and negotiation. The increase in player salaries caused by free agency and interleague competition, the emergence of large representation firms, and the digitization of processes have diversified agents’ services, compared to those of the pre-rationalization era. Such modern-day services include damage control, social-media management, financial management, career planning, and even ancillary duties, such as counseling and life coaching. This distribution of these modern-day services is delineated in the graph below.

This figure illustrates how the services of the athlete-agent have evolved significantly beyond mere licensing and contract services, largely attributable to the efficiency, predictability, and standardization provided by large representation firms.

Increased Barriers to Entry for Modern-Day Sports Agents

Unlike in the early 20th century, where the barriers to entry for becoming a sports agent were relatively limited, the ability to break into the athlete-representation industry is becoming increasingly difficulty (IBIS).

Along with attempts at introducing educational barriers, as seen in the Rich Paul Rule, there are several monetary and societal barriers to becoming a sports agent. For instance, to become certified with NFLPA, alone, a prospective agent must pay a nonrefundable application fee of $2,500, have an undergraduate AND post-graduate degree (or 7 years of relevant negotiating experience), participate in a two-day seminar, and pass a written examination, with an average pass rate of below 50 percent.


The forces of rationalization have not had solely positive effects on the sports agent industry. Therefore, this section analyzes the drawbacks associated with the rationalization of the athlete-representation industry.

The Inauthenticity of Inducements

High competition for a limited pool of talent has led to unethical practices. Some agents resort to "inducements" - signing bonuses, expensive gifts - to lock in young athletes, many from disadvantaged backgrounds. These inducements create a false impression of an agent's value and prioritize short-term gain over long-term career development. This undermines trust and creates a transactional relationship between agent and athlete.

Sports agent Terry Watkins (pictured) illegally offered cash, jewelry, and travel accommodations trips to entice UNC athletes violating NCAA rules. Lost license, faced fines. (Chung, 2017)

Athlete Dehumanization

The overemphasis on quantifiable metrics like speed and stats reduces athletes to mere numbers. Large agencies, with vast rosters, often prioritize a "one-size-fits-all" approach, neglecting the individual needs and aspirations of their clients. Additionally, lesser-known athletes often receive less attention compared to high-profile stars (Dwyer et al., 2021).

Counter-Perspectives: Are These Irrationalities Manageable?

Benefits of Legal Inducements

Industry stakeholders who argue for the use of legal inducements by agents commonly cite the basic economic principle of competition. They argue that when agents compete contentiously to represent athletes, it creates a buyer’s market, allowing athletes to benefit from having more choices and encouraging agents to offer better terms, personalized services, and unique opportunities. Moreover, in response to the inauthentic nature of inducements, some contend that agents who use inducements are more likely to be personally invested in their clients since they are already financially invested.

Smaller Firms Have a Unique Competitive Advantage

Sagacious agents of smaller firms leverage the irrationality of athlete dehumanization created by large firms to create a more appealing value proposition. For instance, Jeffrey Whitney during the 2024 Sports Agent Bootcamp affirmed that his agency is not a “factory” or “mill” that seeks to sign 100 high-profile players annually (which reflects many agencies’ mechanistic approaches), which ensures that he and his partners are invariably accessible to their clients and that their clients’ needs are continually met (Whitney & Bakari, 2024).

Agents Adisa Bakari (left) and Jeffery Whitney (right) standing with NFL athlete Stefon Diggs (middle)

Resistance to Rationalization: How Sports Agents Resist Rigid Systems

Flexible Avenues to Entry

Although the forces of rationalization certainly exist in the athlete-representation industry, the profession of the sports agent has also shown resistance to rationalization in several ways. For instance, while some professions require specific educational backgrounds and linear career paths, the sports agent profession encourages, but does not require, specific educational background.

Indeed, while some bureaucratic organizations, like the NFLPA, have attempted to standardize the educational backgrounds of agents, suggesting that that agents have at least an “undergraduate AND postgraduate degree (master’s or law) from an accredited college/university”, there are no standards for the area of study of the degrees and agents can still come from a variety of backgrounds, including law, business, and sports management. To circumvent the backlash and discriminatory accusations that the NCAA received from the “Rich Paul Rule”, instead of this education requirement, prospective agents must provide proof of at least 7 years of sufficient, relevant negotiating experience (“Becoming an Agent”).

Creativity Over Convention

Top agents like Leigh Steinberg showcase the power of individuality. In negotiating Patrick Mahomes' contract, Steinberg went beyond the standard quarterback template, incorporating innovative bonuses and guarantees, making Mahomes the highest-paid quarterback at the time. While this might have made the process less efficient, it highlighted the value of creative deal-making.

Star NFL Quarterback Patrick Mahomes (left) sitting with influential sports agent Leigh Steinberg (right)


A Look Ahead: The Evolving Landscape of Sports Agents

As professional sports continue to grow, the athlete-representation industry will continue to evolve likewise. Based on the insights gained in this analysis, several defensible predictions can be made regarding how rationalization will continue to affect the sports agent profession.

Tech Revolution

Continued advancements in AI, data analytics, and virtual scouting will be game-changers. Imagine improved scouting decisions, precise player valuations, and potentially even a downsizing of large agencies thanks to streamlined processes.

Regulatory Landscape

The NCAA will likely enact regulations to bring order to the new world of student-athlete representation in the NIL era. Considering Dartmouth College's recently formed player's union, the future might see school-sanctioned athlete agents or a broader union representing all NCAA athletes. Virginia's recent legislation allowing direct NIL payments to college athletes further underscores the future professionalization of college sports and the emergence of "NIL" agents.

The men's basketball team at Dartmouth College (Villeneuve, 2024)

Shifting Player Priorities

As player priorities evolve, the agent profession might adapt too. Mental health support specialists and an increased focus on athlete philanthropy could become standard offerings within large agencies.

Renewed Interleague Competition

The rise of new leagues like the United Football League and the Big 3, coupled with the potential professionalization of college athletics, might reignite interleague competition similar to the mid-20th century. This could lead to higher salaries and stronger bargaining power for athletes and their agents.

Concluding Remarks

Rationalization has undeniably shaped the sports agent profession. Standardization, through certification and agent regulations, brought a level of predictability to the agent-athlete relationship, propelling the profession from a side hustle to a respected career path. Efficiency advancements are evident in the digitization of operations and the emergence of large, multi-service agencies. Additionally, free agency and interleague competition allowed agents to leverage calculability to recruit players, assess market value, and negotiate strong contracts.

However, the pursuit of efficiency has also yielded unintended consequences. Agent inauthenticity and athlete dehumanization are among the main pitfalls. The good news is that these issues are not insurmountable. By understanding both the benefits and drawbacks of rationalization, future athlete representatives can navigate the complexities of the industry and prioritize both efficiency and the human element.


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*Gemini & Bing Chat were used to summarize term paper information. All original paper content is the personal intellectual property of Josiah Hailey Young. Responses were modified accordingly to improve summaries with information generative AI had omitted. *