By Ian Fisher
The Portland Trailblazers’ decision to send out an e-mail on Jan. 8 to other NBA teams warning them not to sign Darius Miles was heavily criticized by a panel of sports lawyers earlier this month at the 2009 University of Florida Sports Law Symposium.
The Trailblazer organization’s president, Larry Miller, sent the letter out threatening legal action if Miles was signed because it would negatively affect the Trailblazers’ salary cap numbers.
“I can’t imagine that everyone was in the room when they made this decision, passed out the letter and said, ‘OK, any changes? Looks alright? Yeah, let’s do it.’ When I heard about that I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’” said Joshua Golka, a Sacramento sports attorney.
Prominent figures in the sports law/business world gathered for the symposium, which was organized by the law school’s Entertainment and Sports Law Society. The Miles’ situation came up in the labor panel.
Miller wrote that teams that sign Miles could be sued for a breach of a fiduciary duty as an NBA joint venturer and for tortious interference with the Trailblazers’ contract rights.
“These two claims that were made are not clear and really questionable ethically if they were based upon anything at all,” said Marc Edelman, a sports law professor that has practice sports litigation. Edelman further criticized the decision to send this out in a late-night e-mail, which is always a bad idea, he said.
Miles has been playing for the Memphis Grizzlies on 10-day contracts, but he may have some legal recourse against the Trailblazers, said Michael McCann, a sports law professor, Sports Illustrated legal analyst, and sports litigator. McCann served as counsel to college football star Maurice Clarett in his lawsuit against the National Football League and its age eligibility rule.
“You could argue that’s tortious interference with contractual relations,” McCann said. “There are other state law claims that would be available to Miles if other teams backed off him, including collusion.”
What Happened to Barry Bonds?
The panelists also spoke at length about Barry Bonds not being able to find a team this past season and whether this constituted collusion between the teams.
Article XX, Rule E of Major League Baseball’s collective bargaining agreement forbids teams to bargain in conjunction with other teams and players to bargain in conjunction with other players.
“When free agency first began in baseball in 1976, the teams were all afraid that the players would get together and form these small bargaining units, and the players would say, ‘I won’t sign with this team unless you sign another player as well,’” Edelman said, noting that Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale did that with the Dodgers before the rule was put in the CBA.
The player would not have to show an actual agreement to prove teams violated this rule, Edelman said. All it takes is a big break from traditional business practices that there could be no rational reason for it but for an agreement, he said.
But after making $17.5 million one year, the fact that no team would even pay Bonds $400,000 pointed toward Bonds at least having an argument for collusion.
“You had the commissioner of the league coming out at a private meeting with the San Francisco Giants, his former team, and all of the Bonds paraphernalia was removed from the stadium,” Edelman said. “You have the commissioner unwilling to go and celebrate and show his face when Barry Bonds sets a major record. And then all of a sudden, you don’t have a single team even talking to him.”
McCann played devil’s advocate and said Bonds would have a hard time proving collusion.
“Even with a loose standard as to what collusion means, there are so many rational reasons for teams to not want Barry Bonds that it’s difficult to imagine that they would be held responsible for not signing him,” he said.