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
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?
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.