*History was made during this year’s NFL draft for black players and the agents who represent them.
For the first time in NFL history, 17 players in the first round of the draft were represented by black agents. Some of those agents had multiple players who were selected in the first round.
With one of the highest picks–Andrew Thomas who was the fourth player selected–agent John Thornton is part of the history that was made. Thornton is an NFL agent for Roc Nation Sports.
The fame of Roc Nation is widespread with its star-studded list of clients. Headed by one of its own most famous clients, Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter, Roc Nation has an entertainment client list of more than 20 singers that includes Alicia Keys, Rihanna, J. Cole, a sports list of more than 70 pro athletes that includes Kyrie Irving, CC Sabathia, and Saquon Barkley, and a ‘personalities’ list of several former athletes who are public figures in broadcast and other industries.
In more ways than one, Thornton is in his element with Roc Nation Sports. He is a celebrated 10 year NFL veteran, a field where the average longevity is three years. After notable NFL success, Thornton successfully transitioned to a ‘post-career’ which is another challenge that many former professional athletes face. Thornton, however, prepared himself for his post [sports] career with thoughts of entering media or player relations. His post-career has included working with players, becoming an agent, owning then selling his agency, and signing on with Roc Nation Sports. He currently has a client list that includes Andrew Thomas, Jaire Alexander, Nick Kwiatkoski, and Hue Jackson.
I secured a one-on-one interview with Thornton to get his unique perspective, having been part of this year’s historic NFL draft.
Foremost, Thornton is excited for his client Andrew Thomas who he defines as “a really good player.” Thornton credits Thomas with doing the work it took to get him drafted so high. Thomas’s talent and performance allowed Thornton to be “really confident” about where he would place in the draft.
One of the major differences this year with the agent-player relationship is remote communication, due to the COVID 19 crisis. Thornton talked about how typically he is involved with brokering communication with his clients and teams, as well as keeping a log of who is calling about them when they are calling, and other details he finds important.
Thornton brings a unique approach to being an agent because he has also been a player. He believes a good agent lets his clients know “what’s happening and what’s gonna happen.” As both a former NFL player and a current agent, Thornton is able to do that.
“I can really talk to the guys about it [the process]…try to make it easy for them so when things happen they understand it.”
Thornton says a good agent goes beyond securing a contract.
“Outside of the contract work, you gotta have a realistic approach to these things…keep the expectations in the right place.”
Thornton sees himself as a “flashlight when [they are] going down a dark alley.”
While defining his role as an agent, Thornton included:
“But, I’m a player too. I think like a player at times. So, I can come in and maybe tell you some things that other people can’t.”
“I’ve been there, you know, I’ve been through the draft process. I played in the Senior Bowl. I went to the NFL combine. I did the Pro Days.”
Thornton says he’s “very honest about if you’re a good player, multiple teams are going to want you.” As part of Roc Nation Sports, he says: “We’re going to do the work necessary for [the client] to be in the best position possible.”
According to Thornton, the “right position” is not always financial. He says that “being a player [him]self,” he advises players to “try to make as most [sic] money as you can as a player because once you’re done, you’re done.” On the other side of that, Thornton talks about his former client, Michael Johnson, whose playing career included Tampa Bay and Cincinnati.
“I got him a great contract. Right. He didn’t like where he went.”
“He was making nine million a year and he wasn’t that happy…When he was on a team making 6 million a year he was super happy because he loved that team and he loved those players.”
“So I think the agent has to understand what the player wants. Yes, I’m gonna try to get you the biggest contract I can get you; that’s my job.”
Even so, Thornton says that the agent has to know what is most important to the player.
Andrew Thomas, Thornton’s client in this year’s draft, should have a contract that is upwards of 32 million based on how rookie contracts are slotted.
Thornton says of the draft itself:
“I think it’s good for the industry, you know, to have the diversity.”
He says that some of the changes in black representation are because “it’s up to the players on what they’re comfortable with.”
“I think now, everything’s opened up.”
“I’m very happy that we had a great year as far as black agents. It’s just kind of leveling the playing field.”
Still, he believes “true diversity is going to come” when black agents can sign white players. When they can go to wherever in the south and get the same access with white clients.
What sets Thornton apart is that he does represent a client who is white. Although most black agents have many top tier players, one agent commented about not being able to list one black agent who has a white client.
Thornton is pleased that he has a client who is a “unicorn” in the industry. He hopes that the future holds more opportunities for all kinds of diversity.
“Hopefully they don’t just see me as a black agent; they see me as an agent that can do the job.”
Thornton is happy about the expanding diversity in his field and points out Nicole Lynn, a black female agent who represented one of the clients in the first round this year. He also points out that Roc Nation is the most diverse company he has worked with at any level of his career.
He concludes the interview with encouraging words about the pandemic. He says that he tells his players “just be ready for when things open up; be ready to hit the group running.” He says to everyone:
“Don’t let this time just to be idle. Try to find something to be better at during this time…Find something to make yourself better. Read a book. Listen to a podcast. You know. Try to do something that will help you.”
“As a player, try to find something that’s going to help you post-career. You know. Or, make sure you’re training every day.”
“In the grand scheme of things, I don’t know what to say to make it better for people because we’re all in the same boat, but I would just say find something during this time every day…to make yourself better.” He expands on the kindness and personal changes everyone can work toward.
In the full video interview with Thornton, he elaborates on the nuances of being an agent, expands further on diversity in sports, and offers encouragement for everyone that is inspiring.
Jermayne (@JJermayne Writes) is the author of 6 published books; 3 are sports themed. Jermayne freelance writes and travels to cover sports, entertainment and cultural events.