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Arn Tellem

Arn Tellem

Posted: January 29, 2010 03:21 PM

A Fine Mess

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It's a joke that no doubt dates to the very first set shot. Yet Jim Valvano used to swear that he once asked a referee if he could draw a technical foul for thinking bad things about him. The ref said, "Of course not." So Valvano said, "Well, I think you suck." And the ref gave him a technical. "You can't trust refs," muttered Valvano.

That crack has added resonance today in light of the $25,000 fine that the NBA recently levied against Nate Robinson for publicly demanding a trade. Curiously, the New York Knicks guard never actually asked the team to swap him, in public or private. The request was issued by his Seattle-based agent, Aaron Goodwin. On December 19, Goodwin told the New York Times that he asked Knicks president Donnie Walsh to move Robinson, who had been dropped from the rotation by coach Mike D'Antoni and benched for eight straight games. "I want to do what I can to get Nate out of New York," said Goodwin. "There's no reason to allow this kid's career to get rotted by what's going on here in New York."

The next day Robinson disavowed Goodwin's comments. In fact, he has repeatedly told the press that he wants to remain in New York. Still, the NBA determined that he had violated league policy about making trade demands through the media. This marks the first time that an athlete has been disciplined for a statement by an agent -- in pro basketball, or possibly any other sport.

No specific NBA rule prohibits public trade demands by players or agents. The league can discipline players, but has no sway over agents. But in this particular case, the league has deemed Goodwin's remarks an affront to its player-conduct policy. Joel Litvin, the NBA's president of basketball operations, has said, "The agent has a legal relationship with that player. He speaks for the player, he acts for the player, he's a fiduciary for that player. You can only imagine if we didn't hold players accountable for the actions and words of their agents, how easy it would be to get around a lot of our rules. We don't think players can disown what agents are saying and doing on their behalf.''

I disagree. It's one thing for the NBA to fine or suspend a player for berating a coach or making racist comments or screaming "Fire!" in a crowded arena. But trade demands are neither disparaging nor irresponsible. If anything, they are negotiating tactics integral to the business of basketball. The public trade demand has been something of an NBA tradition at least since 1968, when Wilt Chamberlain threatened to bolt to the upstart American Basketball Association if the Philadelphia 76ers failed to deal him to the Los Angeles Lakers. Six years later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar decided that being in Milwaukee didn't fit his cultural needs and -- loudly and openly - insisted on being shipped to L.A. or New York. In 1998, Karl Malone announced on his own radio show that he wanted out of Utah. (The Mailman retracted the announcement a week later).

Trade demands only became actionable offenses after the 2004-'05 season. Discomfited by the high-profile ultimatums of Vince Carter, Baron Davis, Shaquille O'Neal, Tracy McGrady and Shareef Abdur-Rahim, NBA officials told the players union during talks for the 2005 Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) that such demands would henceforth fall under Rule 35, a player misconduct provision in the league constitution. Public trade demands are now considered "statements detrimental to the NBA" and fines of $50,000 or less for off-court behavior cannot be appealed through a grievance arbitrator.

The first player to get slapped with a trade-demand fine was Ron Artest, who was then an Indiana Pacer. Artest's request came early in the 2005-'06 campaign, and cost him $25,000. For the next four years, the ban was not invoked. Evidently, the public trade demands of at least five players were deemed "less than detrimental":

  • "I would like to be traded, yeah. Tough as it is to come to that conclusion there's no other alternative, you know... At this point I'll go play on Pluto." - Kobe Bryant, March 2007
  • "I'm tired of hearing my name in trades. I love my fans in Phoenix, but I think it's time for me to move on." - Shawn Marion, September, 2007
  • "We tried to make this work. We've found out it doesn't. It's time or us all to move on." - Jason Kidd, January, 2008
  • "I want to be moved. I want to be moved. I want to be moved. I want to be traded." -- Mickael Pietrus, February, 2008
  • "I didn't want to play for (Golden State Warriors executive Chris) Mullin. I told him that this summer. I reiterated that again to Mully. I've told him twice since training camp has started that I don't want to be here." - Al Harrington, October, 2008

On August 28, 2009, Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Jackson stated a desire to be traded to Cleveland, New York or one of the Texas teams. A little more than two weeks later, the NBA hit him with a $25,000 penalty. Jackson could have protested, but the 2005 change to the CBA left NBA commissioner David Stern the only court of appeal for off-court behavior that forces him to "preserve the integrity of, or maintain public confidence in, the game of basketball." The league claimed that by saying he no longer wished to play for the Warriors, Jackson had lowered public opinion of the team and promoted a negative stereotype ("athletes are selfish"). When it was pointed out that the equally-vocal Bryant hadn't been penalized in 2007, an NBA spokesman said that because Bryant recanted his request the same day, the league decided not to fine him. Which is true, to an extent. After backtracking later that day, Bryant publicly reiterated the demand -- through his agent -- two weeks later.

All of which only underscores how the selective targeting of Robinson - who never even uttered a demand -- is inappropriate and unwarranted. Basically, the NBA is using the policy to reign in players it regards as troublemakers. An employee should be allowed to express displeasure with his employer. Why should criticism be solely the prerogative of management? (Coaches are free to denigrate their players -- how does that not diminish the NBA product?) And why punish a player for "lowering public opinion" when, in virtually all instances, public trade demand gambits backfire and rally fans to a team's defense.

Agents demand -- it's what they do. Trade demands are a necessary tool for protecting a client's interest -- and for a sports agent, a client's interests are paramount. To deny an agent or athlete this basic freedom will only chill free speech and encourage further erosion of player rights. The policy should be vigorously challenged by the players union.

To paraphrase the great Valvano: I think the rule sucks.