The Astounding, Clueless, Unethical And Doomed Hiring Of Brodie Van Wagenen

‘Conflicts of interest? I have no idea what you mean…’

Disclaimer: This is NOT a baseball ethics post. This is a business ethics post about a major ethics issue,  and the business happens to be a major league baseball team.

This week the New York Mets stunned the baseball world by hiring Brodie Van Wagenen—that’s him on the left—as its new general manager.

He is not only being hired to manage the business of a major league baseball team without having ever worked for a baseball organization in any capacity. That would be strange enough. He is also a player agent who has been the representative of several key players currently under contract to the Mets, meaning that he acted for them in negotiating against the team he now heads.Van Wagenen made $25 million in commissions last year on player contracts.

Anyone whose ethics alarms weren’t set ringing like the bells during the Great Chicago Fire by the Mets decision doesn’t understand what a conflict of interest is. Guess who this category includes. Yup: Van Wagenen and the New York Mets.

In a press conference at Citi Field, Mets executives were asked about the conflicts issue, which should have been predictable, mandating a careful, thorough answer.  As a player agent for Creative Artists Agency (Van Wagenen has divested himself of all shares in the company and future commissions…at least he figured out that much) Van Wageman’s responsibility was to negotiate the most lucrative contracts for his clients. As the a general manager for the New York Mets, his responsibility is to build a successful team within its resources, regardless of the best interests of his former clients, the players he worked with over the past 18 years. When the “C” word was raised bu reporters,  Mets President Fred Wilpon interrupted before Van Wagenen could answer  and said that he had spoken with the commissioner’s office and Major League Players Association chief Tony Clark, adding, “We have provisions in Brodie’s contract to deal with any conflicts of interest.”

Oh! Well never mind then! The contract deals with it, and the Mets have spoken to people! All taken care of!

Neither Wilpon nor Van Wagenen would say what those provisions were, but I guarantee this as an ethics specialist: the only provision that could effectively deal with Van Wagenen’s conflicts would be “Van Wagenen can’t be the Mets general manager.”

”The goals between players and management are more in line than people think,” was Van Wagenen’s useless and evasive answer after Wilpon had taken hos best shot.

The first example that leapt into everyone’s mind was Jacob DeGrom, the Mets best pitcher and arguably the best pitcher in baseball. At the All-Star break, Van Wagenen said the Mets should sign deGrom, then his client, to a long-term extension. Now, speaking from the other side, he says, “I believe Jacob deGrom is an incredible talent, and I [that is, the Mets, not deGrom’s agent] hope to keep him for a long time.” Ethics alarms? DeGrom  must have shared highly confidential information with his agent, like how long he plans to play, how much he would cut his demands to stay with the Mets, his opinions about Mets management, manager Mickey Callaway, and teammates, and possible health issues and personal matters unknown to the team, most or all of which the player wouldn’t want Mets management and ownership to know about. Well, now the Mets do know about those matters, or should be presumed to know.  Now what?

The Mets facile answer is that Van Wagenen will recuse himself from negotiations with players like deGrom: other former clients with the Mets include slugger Yoenis Cespedes, #2 starter Noah Syndergaard, starting third-baseman Todd Frazier and minor league players Tim Tebow. But, said Wilpon, he would still “provide direction.” Wait, what?  No no no no! If he recuses himself, he can’t ethically “provide direction,” because he can’t un-hear all of those confidences from the players that he is simultaneously obligated to share with the Mets and ethically forbidden to reveal. As a Mets executive, he is obligated not to withhold information they need to know and want to know about a player they are going to commit many millions of dollars to. Nobody can serve two masters:  that’s the whole point of the ancient conflicts of interest principle. Have these people never learned this? Benn taught it? Read about it? Thought about it? Don’t they even read Ethics Alarms??? Apparently not. As USA Today sports columnist Bob Nightengale writes,

[W]e’re supposed to believe that at no time, not now or ever, will Wilpon or anyone else in the Mets front office casually ask Van Wagenen, “Hey, what’s your best-guess on just what deGrom is willing to take to keep him in the organization before he hits free agency in two years?” You really think Van Wagenen won’t spill his guts, or let Wilpon know whether deGrom ever complained about a sore elbow or shoulder, or that perhaps he’s willing to take less than the Mets envision since he’s more worried about financial security than setting contract records?

Bingo.

Super-agent Scott Boras, who has his own serious conflicts problems (I’ve written about them here), was quick to point out the dilemma his old business competitor is now in.

“The Boras Corporation stands for a total commitment to players, and while I have been offered many opportunities with teams, I would never violate the trust that I have with any player, and that is very important to what I do,” Boras said. “I am an attorney, and I want [players] to tell me everything, and a lot of these things are confidential, they are personal, and if I went to work for a different employer, I would have to divulge all that information because I have to do my job for that other employer I made a commitment to.”

Of course Boras’s comments must be heard in the context of someone who would love to sign up all of Van Wagenen’s former clients.

He also did not mention that as an attorney, Boras is obligated by a mandatory ethics code to keep client confidences and to avoid conflicts of loyalty. Agents have no such professional regulations, and most of them, like Van Wagenen, are not lawyers. That doesn’t change the ethical principles or obligations involved, however. Fiduciary principles apply even when no official rules, laws or regulations have been enacted. Van Wagenen literally can’t be the Mets general manager without violating core ethical principles, and the way he and the New York Mets are “dealing” with his conflicts is to pretend they don’t exist.

This will not end well. It can’t end well.

_________________

Sources: Forbes, USA Today, CBS Sports, New York Post

15 thoughts on “The Astounding, Clueless, Unethical And Doomed Hiring Of Brodie Van Wagenen

  1. ” He is also a player agent who has been the representative of several key players currently under contract to the Mets, meaning that he acted for them in negotiating against the team he now heads.”

    You mean like Trump’s picks for the EPA, FCC, etc? Virtually all of them?

    That’s the new standard, apparently.

    I agree it’s unethical, of course, but you’ve been swallowing camels, so why is a gnat a problem?

    • I remember reading about the NLRB investigation of the Northwestern football team. The head of the investigation talked about his long tenure as a senior union official and union organizer. I believe Eric Holder took part in an armed takeover of a ROTC office when he was part of a black power organization. He later dropped charges against the Black Panthers in their voter intimidation case. Let’s not start the Trump derangement syndrome going.

    • Just plain wrong. An executive does not have a conflict of interest, because there is no obligation, ethical of legal, for an employee or executive not to make every use of infirmation he or she acquires during that tenure in subequent jobs, tasks and roles. They are required to sell off remaining interests, and that’s it. There are no confidences involved: if a financial services exec becomes head of an enforcement agency, he is NOT obligated to pretend irregularities he knew about don’t exist. He doesn’t have to recuse himself from any situation because there is no lingering duty to old employers. If you don’t see that, and you apparently don’t, then you either don’t understand conflict ethics or are straining to make a bad analogy, which is my guess.

      I’ve already written plenty about the President’s conflicts, which were known, ignored, and are completely built into the office, as the founders knew at the outset. In the case of that all encompassing job, the public waives the conflicts by electing the individual.

  2. Jeff Moorad pioneered this strange agent to management thing. He actually became a part owner of the Diamondbacks. Then he bought into the Padres while still owning part of the Diamondbacks before cashing out of both clubs when the boys at MLB wouldn’t vote to let him into the owners’ club. And he was a lawyer the whole time, and now he’s a partner at Moran Lewis and Bockius! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeff_Moorad

  3. “We have provisions in Brodie’s contract to deal with any conflicts of interest.”

    Oh! Well never mind then! The contract deals with it, and the Mets have spoken to people! All taken care of!

    Heh. Judge Kavanaugh, go ahead and collect that $600K from the GoFundMe set up by your admirers — I’m sure you have “provisions” to deal with any conflict of interest. We trust you.

    Just like Donald Trump does. We trust him, right?

    You know, anyone who would trust someone with such an obvious conflict of interest as Van Wagenen has deserve exactly what they get. And if Trump’s conflicts of interests come back to bite the country (and I don’t mean in the erotic fantasies the Democrats currently use for self-pleasure), we’ll deserve it, too. After all, in both cases, we knew what we were getting when we hired him. So do the Mets.

    • Fun thought exercise: How do national politicians, making low 6 figures annually while in office, leave that office worth many times their total cumulative salary?

      And you are worried about Trump?

      Both sides of the aisle, too.

      • I’m not really worried about Trump, but we do have to be honest about his conflicts of interest. As Jack pointed out above, they are built-in by virtue of his election, but they could come back to haunt us all.

        Just because others do it also, or are even worse, does not make Trump’s conflicts go away or unimportant. That’s just how it is.

  4. “That doesn’t change the ethical principles or obligations involved, however. Fiduciary principles apply even when no official rules, laws or regulations have been enacted.”
    But, Jack, that’s just ethics, you see, and so long as the lawyers give the green light that no “rules, laws or regulations” are violated, everyone (without ethics alarms) can just breathe easy and go with the flow – until the damn thing jumps the rails, that is.
    It is continually disheartening that people so clueless of obvious ethical quagmires find their way to the top of big business hierarchies. It begs the question: what other ethical traps are or will be similarly enabled?

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