In The Baseball Dead Of Winter, An Old And Unresolved Ethics Problem Glows Bright

From left to right: MLB, players, and the union.

…as Major League Baseball ignores it, as usual.

Ethics alarms test: Scott Boras, lawyer and player agent, represents two Washington Nationals free agents in their prime. One is Stephen Strasburg, one of the best and most sought after starting pitchers in the game. He was seeking, on the advice of his agent, a long-term contract of more than 30 million dollars a year. Another is Anthony Rendon, third-baseman, and the Nationals’ best player in 2019, their championship year. He also is seeking a salary of at least 30 million per year, over many years. He is a fan favorite in Washington, D.C., and obviously enjoys playing there. Contrary to popular belief, however, Major League baseball teams do not have endless supplies of money, though they have a lot. Mike Rizzo, Washington Nationals general manager, told the sports media and Washington fans that the team could not afford to sign both Strasberg and Rendon at the rates they were demanding and the marketplace dictated.

Is there a problem, and if so, what is it?

You shouldn’t need much time to answer, but then again, thousands of baseball sportswriters and the entire baseball establishment havn’t figured this out over many years, do I’ll give you a “Jeopardy!” period of reflection:

OK, contestants,what’s your answer? Continue reading

Once Again, Baseball Agent Conflicts Are Hurting Players Who Don’t Understand Why

Baseball writers are the tools of baseball player agents, useful idiots who write on and on about the underpaid millionaire players and the unfair owners, who won’t pay them what they “deserve.” They scrupulously avoid educating readers about the unethical player agents who manipulate the system and the players for their own benefit, not their clients.  I have written about the unregulated and largely ethics-free baseball agents before, but their conduct this off-season is unusually revolting.

At the top of the list, as usual, is mega-agent Scott Boras, who cleverly treads the line between being an agent and a lawyer—he is both—while having too many stars under his thumb for the sports organizations or bar associations to hold him to account. For example, as a lawyer, Boras would be absolutely bound to tell his clients about a settlement offer, and would be subject to disbarment if he rejected an offer without communicating it to his client (you know, like you regularly see lawyers doing on TV and in the movies). However, there are no player agent rules that require an agent to communicate a team’s salary offer to a player. Agents can, and presumably do, reject offers without their clients ever hearing about them. This, of course, avoids the problem of a baseball star saying, “Oh, hell, that’s more money than I could ever spend anyway. I know it’s less than we talked about, but go ahead and take it.”

Agents have conflicts of interest so grand, and apparently so little understood, that meaningful consent from the client, theoretically the remedy, is virtually impossible. Let’s look at Bryce Harper, Boras’s client who is seeking more than $300 million dollars over a ten year guaranteed contract. Harper is 26 years old and has already made 49 million dollars, not counting endorsements. The functional utility of each dollar he earns is less than the one earned before in his situation. Realistically, there is very little difference between a $250,000,000 contract and a $300,000,000 contract to Harper, except from an ego perspective. The extra 50,000,000 won’t make any difference to him. Boras, however, is a different matter. Let’s say his cut of Harper’s salary is 5%.  He’ll get 15,000,000 if Harper signs for the high figure, but “only” 12,500,000 if Harper agrees to the lower figure. $2.5 million means nothing to Harper: he could throw it down the toilet, and wouldn’t feel a thing. The difference to Boras, however, is much greater in practical, and add to that the marketing advantage of being able to tell potential clients that he set the new all-time record for a free agent contract for his client. Continue reading

Sick-Bed Ethics Warm-Up, 11/14/18: Ethics Among the Sneezes [UPDATED]

Good whatever it is….

1. Bottom line” Don’t trust Facebook. From the Times: “Facebook failed to closely monitor device makers after granting them access to the personal data of hundreds of millions of people, according to a previously unreported disclosure to Congress last month.” Surprised? As with Google promising moths ago that it was no longer reading our mail, then admitting months later that it had resumed the practice, the big tech companies have proven repeatedly that that we cannot believe what they say, or their motives, or their pledges of good will and public service. More from the Times story:

Facebook’s loose oversight of the partnerships was detected by the company’s government-approved privacy monitor in 2013. But it was never revealed to Facebook users, most of whom had not explicitly given the company permission to share their information. Details of those oversight practices were revealed in a letter Facebook sent last month to Senator Ron Wyden, the Oregon Democrat, a privacy advocate and frequent critic of the social media giant.

In the letter, a copy of which Mr. Wyden provided to The New York Times, Facebook wrote that by early 2013 it had entered into data-sharing agreements with seven device makers to provide what it called the “Facebook experience” — custom-built software, typically, that gave those manufacturers’ customers access to Facebook on their phones. Those partnerships, some of which date to at least 2010, fall under a consent decree with the Federal Trade Commission drafted in 2011 and intended to oversee the company’s privacy practices.

Read the whole thing. I just assume that anything I put on Facebook, regardless of the alleged settings,will be sold to or otherwise obtained by potentially malign entities.

2. Just what we need now, a rogue First Lady. First Lady Melania Trump publicly called for the President’s deputy national security adviser, Mira Ricardel, to be fired.  In a word, well, two: Shut up. The felicitous circumstance of marrying someone who is later elected President of the United States confers no expertise or authority. The position of First Lady has no Constitutionally recognized duties, nor does it carry any real power. There is nothing anyone can do to diminish the influence and spouse may have with the President behind closed doors—and that is a problem—but she or the inevitable he must not confuse, confound or otherwise seek to influence affairs of state with public comments and opinions. Why Melania wants Ricardel fired is irrelevant. It’s none of her business.

I just want to point out that I sneezed six times while typing those last four words. Applause, please. Continue reading

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.” Continue reading

The Phenom, The Agent And The Cubbies: 2015’s First Baseball Ethics Controversy

No, I don’t count Pete Rose.

Kris Bryant, whose day will come.

Kris Bryant, whose day will come.

The lesson of the Kris Bryant dispute is that sometimes the result that seems the least fair is also the right one. Bryant, in case you don’t follow baseball or do not live in Chicago, is the hot Chicago Cubs minor leaguer—what used to be called a “phenom” in the old days—who will not be playing third base for the Cubs when the season opens despite everyone’s agreement that he is not just ready for National League, but ready to star in it. Last week, the young man was assigned  to  the Cubs’ Triple-A Iowa farm team.  Cubs fans are upset. Sports pundits are outraged. Bryant’s agent is furious.

What’s going on here?

A lot.

The MLB  collective bargaining agreement, negotiated and signed by both baseball management and the players union, gives teams control over players for six years before a player can enter free agency and sell his talents to the highest bidder. Thus most young players earn a small percentage of their true market value initially, and, if they are good, hit the jackpot after that. (The average salary in Major League Baseball is $4 million a year). There is a catch, however—and an unavoidable loophole. A full season is defined as 172 days, though the season is 180 days. If a young player is left off the roster until there are fewer than 172 days remaining in the regular season, that season doesn’t count as one of the six years; a player can’t become a free agent mid-season six years later. Before the demise of the reserve system that bound a player to one team until the team released or traded him, there was no reason not to promote a promising minor league star to the big team the second it looked like he was ready. Now, there is a big reason: delaying those few games will give the team an extra year of control, since under the rule, 6 years and 171 games is still just six years. That means an extra year of the player at bargain compensation, and possibly an extra year of the player, since he can fly the coop once the clock has run.

This is not a new issue: players and agents have been complaining about teams doing this for years, but the rules allow it. Since the rules allow it, and since the monetary and competitive benefits of waiting those extra nine days can be huge, there is nothing unfair or unethical about a team taking advantage of the provision. Indeed, it would be irresponsible and a breach of management’s fiduciary duties not to save millions and ensure the extra year of a star’s services. What, then, has made Bryant’s case so contentious?

It’s the Cubs, that’s what. Continue reading

The Unforgivable Conflict of Interest: Sports Agents, Robbing Their Ignorant Clients

The ethical course is to choose.

The ethical course is to choose.

Sports agents are rich, powerful, and ethically handicapped by inherent conflicts of interest. The first two qualities so far have insulated them from dealing fairly and openly with the second. This is wrong, and has got to stop. For it to stop, it would help if the players, their unions, the sports leagues and the sports media didn’t either intentionally pretend not to see the obvious, or weren’t too biased and ignorant to realize what’s going on.

Four years ago, I wrote about this problem in a long piece for Hardball Times, a baseball wonk blog of consistent high quality.  The specific agent I was writing about was Scott Boras, the king of baseball player agents, but the egregious conflict I flagged isn’t confined to that professional sport; it’s present in all of them. In the article, I argued that Boras, a lawyer, is engaged in the practice of law when serving as an agent and was therefore violating the legal ethics rules, which prohibits having clients whose interests are directly adverse to each other, specifically in the so-called “Zero-Sum Conflict” situation.

A lawyer can’t assist two clients bidding for the same contract, because the better job he does for one, the worse his other client fares. A lawyer can’t sue a defendant for every penny that defendant has on behalf of one client when he or she has another client or two that have grievances against that same defendant—if the lawyer is successful with the first client, he’s just ruined his other clients’ chances of recovery. There is some controversy over whether the legal ethics rules automatically apply to a lawyer-agent like Boras, but never mind—whether he is subject to the legal ethics rules or not when serving as an agent, the conflict of interest he is blithely ignoring still applies, still harms his clients, still puts money in his pockets, and still should not be permitted. Continue reading

Baseball’s Free Agent Follies: Dumb Clients, Conflicted Agent

Baseball’s super-agent Scott Boras has his annual off-season conflict of interest problem, and as usual, neither Major League Baseball, nor the Players’ Union, nor the legal profession, not his trusting but foolish clients seem to care. Nevertheless, he is operating under circumstances that make it impossible for him to be fair to his clients.

This year, Boras has three aging outfielders in his stable, all with some Hall of Fame credentials, all with fading skills, and all without jobs. Their names are Manny Ramirez, Johnny Damon and Andruw Jones. Thanks to a glut of unsigned hitters still on the market, the price for each of these three—once, when they were young, in the 8-figures a year range—is falling fast. According to an analysis by ESPN, only six, and possibly as few as three, possible teams are still looking to fill slots on their rosters suitable for Ramirez, Damon, and Jones, and none of them will sign more than one, if any. Continue reading