Star athletes Aaron Donald and Jaylen Brown learned Kanye West is bad for business

Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, seen in a file photo from 2019. Prominent athletes Aaron Donald and Jaylen Brown departed Ye's Donda Sports agency on Tuesday. (Robin Marchant/Getty Images - image credit)
Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, seen in a file photo from 2019. Prominent athletes Aaron Donald and Jaylen Brown departed Ye's Donda Sports agency on Tuesday. (Robin Marchant/Getty Images - image credit)

This is a column by Morgan Campbell, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Were you surprised on Tuesday, when NFL star Aaron Donald and NBA standout Jaylen Brown each announced they were leaving Donda Sports, the agency founded by rapper/fashion designer/right-wing troll Kanye West?

The news blindsided me, mainly because I had forgotten Donda Sports still existed, and was shocked that people like Donald and Brown, with big names and good reputations, still had ties to it.

Their defections follow West's latest salvo of offensive comments. Earlier this month he trafficked in white supremacist slogans. Last week he dabbled in antisemitism, and prompted some of his biggest corporate sponsors, like the sportswear giant Adidas, to drop him. Right now he's the flipside of Pickleball, losing business partners as fast as the world's next big sport is signing them up.

And Donald and Brown?

They shocked me with their willingness to play ball for this long with someone as unreliable as West, who now goes by "Ye," keeps proving to be. Stars in the NFL and NBA aren't just athletes — they're enterprises, who, you would think, recognize that West's penchant for instability is bad for business. So the mystery arising from Donald and Brown's decisions to dump Donda is why they signed up in the first place.

WATCH | Adidas disassociates with Kanye West following antisemetic remarks:

Donald is a seven-time All-Pro with the Los Angeles Rams, and made a game-saving sack late in last winter's Super Bowl. Brown is an NBA all-star, and among the first pro athletes to protest in public after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers in May of 2020.

Each man has the profile and personal brand equity to, when they need to hire an agent, choose from the best and most proven.

Donda Sports, for the record, is (was?) a marketing agency, which planned to seek partnerships for athletes. League-certified agents negotiated Donald and Brown's player contracts.

Still, neither man needed to gamble on Donda Sports — they weren't Rod Tidwell jumping ship from a bloodless corporate sports agency to help Jerry Maguire build his scrappy, loveable startup. And both are grown enough to see what becomes of established athletes who trust shady agents. That two professional veterans didn't apply a more stringent filter when searching for a company to represent their interests to the business world is concerning.

Thankfully, Donald and Brown's dalliance with Donda only exposed them to possible reputational damage. There are no stories of botched deals or missing millions. Just their head-scratching decision to align with West, and their public termination letters.

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

After all, Donald and Brown didn't sign with 2003 Kanye West, the hit-making producer behind classic Jay-Z tracks like Izzo; the deep-thinking rapper who railed against materialism in All Falls Down; the unlikely superstar whose debut album The College Dropout, chronicled his journey from underdog to top dog.

They did business with West after Jay-Z cut him off, after he made a diss track attacking his ex-wife and her new partner, after he literally set himself on fire at a music release party.

And they stuck with him until his interview with Fox News host Tucker Carlson, in which he spouted some casual antisemitism.

"I'd prefer my kids knew Hanukkah than Kwanzaa," he said in a leaked interview. "At least it would come with some financial engineering."

That comment prompted Adidas to drop West, and spurred Donald to follow suit.

"We felt a responsibility to send a clear message that hateful words and actions have consequences and that we must do better as human beings," said a letter posted to Donald's Twitter account. "We do not feel our beliefs, voices and actions belong anywhere near a space that misrepresents and oppresses people of any background, ethnicity or race."

Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

If rap stars had a history of blossoming into powerhouse agents, the way 10,000-metre runners develop into marathoners, signing with Donda Sports would have made sense. But the short history of rappers-turned-agents includes Percy "Master P" Miller, who repped running back Ricky WIlliams in negotiations with the New Orleans Saints in 1999. The incentive-laded deal Williams signed is widely regarded as one of the worst in NFL history.

Or there's Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson, whose friendship with Floyd Mayweather spawned a brief career as a boxing manager. After a falling-out with Mayweather, Jackson's stable dwindled to a single top-tier fighter, Yuriorkis Gamboa, for whom Jackson failed to arrange any memorable fights.

West, at least, knew enough to enlist a sports veteran as his deputy, so maybe it comforted Brown and Donald to meet Donda Sports president Antonio Brown.

Yes, that Antonio Brown.

Former NFL receiver Antonio Brown, who feuded with coaches in Pittsburgh and Oakland, and was last seen peeling off his jersey and stalking off the field at mid-game at MetLife Stadium, after beefing with Bruce Arians, then the head coach of the Tampa Bay Bucs.

Correction, we last saw Brown performing a lacklustre rap song at a music festival in South Florida, ensuring the next act would sound better by contrast.

If you can see why that pair would appeal to established veteran athletes with money and options, explain it to me in the comments. I'm stumped.

I understand why the standard agent-athlete relationship might seem stale and outdated to some folks. If you already think you know what you're worth, why pay three per cent of your salary to the person who negotiates it? Why not hire a lawyer to do it for a flat fee, or, like Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, deal directly with the team?

WATCH | Kanye West receives social media ban over offensive comments:

The answer, of course, is convenience. Agents haggle with employers so professionals can concentrate on the craft, whether it's sports, music or writing. In the NFL, agents take three per cent of seven, eight and nine-figure deals. In my world, that of the first-time author, your agent takes a larger slice of a much smaller pie.

And I was still grateful. A good agent gets you a pay bump that dwarfs their fee. You're not so much paying a toll as investing with them. Additionally, and crucially, they save you the excruciating headaches that often accompany the petty back-and-forth of contract negotiation.

But nothing about West's or Brown's public persona says "migraine remedy." West is a Black man who favours the "White Lives Matter" t-shirts popular among white nationalists. Brown has been sued by a mover for allegedly assaulting him and damaging a truck, a chef for allegedly not paying a $38,000 US bill, and, of course, a sports marketing agency for allegedly failing to pay commission on deals they secured.

All those antics say "business partners, beware," but here came Donald and Brown anyway, apparently comfortable with the risk, and able to tolerate the bad press the people atop Donda Sports generated … up to a point.

The only bigger riddle than why either man signed with Donda is why it took this particular blowup to chase them away.