Sports and the Law: Sports Executives Say The Darndest Things

Sports and the law Edelman.jpg[Ed Note: ATL is happy to welcome back Marc Edelman, sports-law professor/sports-law blogger. Marc will be giving ATL readers his take on the sports-law issues of the day on an ad-hoc basis.]

Sports executives are supposed to be shrewd. They are supposed to be savvy. They are supposed to follow sound legal advice, and they are not expected to write smoking gun emails.

Some big-name sports executives, however, keep fouling this up.

Last Thursday, Portland Trailblazers president Larry Miller sent an email to the other 29 NBA teams, asking them not to sign free agent forward Darius Miles. Miller sent this email because he did not want to incur the salary cap hit that would have been triggered if Miles plays in two more games this season. (For more details, see here).

According to various sources, Miller’s email was filled with legal banter such as claims that if any NBA team signed Miles, it would breach a “fiduciary duty as an NBA joint venturer,” and “tortiously interfer[e] with the Portland Trail Blazers’ contract.”

As a matter of law, however, Miller’s claims are bizarre, if not outright bogus. There is no fiduciary duty amongst NBA teams that forbids them from competing vigorously in the free agent market. In addition, there is no active player contract between a free agent player such as Miles and his former team.

Even more disturbing than these outlandish legal claims, however, is that Miller’s email seems to invite NBA teams to boycott Miles’s services. This reading of Miller’s email places the Blazers at risk of facing an antitrust lawsuit under Section 1 of the Sherman Act or a labor grievance under the anti-collusion provisions in the NBA collective bargaining agreement (Major League Baseball owners got into trouble for similar misconduct in the late 1980s) (pdf).

After the jump, more sports executives behaving badly.

Astoundingly, this is not the first time in recent months that a veteran sports executive has exposed himself to legal risk during a bout with oral diarrhea. Just last month, Atlanta Braves president John Schuerholz told the media that he would never again negotiate a contract with a player represented by agent Paul Kinzer. Although Schuerholz’s language was not nearly as outlandish as Miller’s, a finder of fact may interpret Schuerholz’s words to express an intent to violate the labor-law duty to negotiate in good-faith with an approved union and its representatives (of course, this presumes that the National Labor Relations Act considers a player agent to be a union representative).

Maybe it is too easy to pick on sports executives given how often they act in public. Because these executives operate in a public arena, however, one would expect them to better understand the legal implications of their words.

In the case of Miller, who ironically will be speaking later this month at a conference on “The Law of Sports Leagues,” he may get off easily with his blunder. Despite Miller’s best efforts to deter other NBA clubs from signing Miles, the Memphis Grizzlies on Saturday announced their intent to sign Miles. If the Grizzlies sign and play Miles, the Blazers would likely avoid an ugly antitrust or labor lawsuit.

Nevertheless, Miller’s reputation may ultimately take a big hit from this whole mess. Indeed, the same can also be said about the Blazers’ team salary cap.


Marc Edelman is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Rutgers School of Law-Camden. He will be joining the faculty of Barry Law School in Fall 2009. His bio is available here, and his publications, here.

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