Jacoby Ellsbury & MLBPA vs. New York Yankees

This week the MLB Players’ Association filed a grievance against the New York Yankees on behalf of the team’s former center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury in an attempt to recoup the remaining $26 million that he argues is owed to him. After winning the World Series with the Red Sox in 2013, Ellsbury signed a seven year, $153 million contract with the Yankees, however went on to miss a staggering 452 games between 2014-2019. For reference, in that same time frame the Yankees played 972 games (excluding playoffs), meaning the speedy outfielder appeared in just over 53% of those contests. If that wasn’t already hard enough to stomach, according to Fangraphs, Ellsbury registered a wRC+ (explanation below)* of 96 as a New York Yankee, so he was roughly 4% worse than league average.

While it is impossible to understate how disappointing Ellsbury’s tenure in the Big Apple was, his contract, like the vast majority of MLB contracts, was fully guaranteed therefore the $153 million was never contingent upon performance or even playing for that matter. However, the Yankees allege that the former silver slugger violated his contract by receiving unauthorized medical treatment which allowed them to convert his contract to “non-guaranteed” and then subsequently release him.

According to the Yankees, the 36-year-old was treated for an injury by Dr. Viktor Bouquette in Atlanta without the team’s consent, yet Ellsbury argues that the treatment was for a non-baseball-related injury, which does not require permission. The CBA essentially states that as long as the “Non-Work-Related Injury does not affect the Player’s ability to provide services,” then the player is exempt from disclosing treatment procedures. However, seeing as Ellsbury had not played a game since the end of 2017, which coincidentally is around the same time it is alleged that he started seeing Dr. Bouquette, it will be tough for the MLBPA to prove that there is no link between the two.

Though Ellsbury’s medical records are protected under medical privacy, if there is truly no causal connection between his NWR injury and the right oblique strain that was the first of his slew of 2018 injuries, then he and the MLBPA could and should release those medicals to prove that they are wholly unrelated.

There is a lot at stake for both sides in this case that will be heard by arbitrator Mark Irvings, who will be making a significant ruling next month in another dispute between player and club. For the Yankees, after the historic Gerrit Cole signing, their 2020 payroll ballooned to $243 million, which carries a significant luxury tax. The tax threshold (number at which team’s must pay extra for every dollar over) for next season is $208 million. The Yankees will pay 30% on ever dollar between $208 million and $228 million, 42% between $228-$248 million, and 75% beyond $248 million. So, the Yankees would stand to gain substantially if they lower that figure from $243 million, which would represent $12.3 million in taxes, to $217 million, which would only tax them $2.7 million.

As for Ellsbury, he is still rehabbing but is looking more like a liability than an asset so this $26 million could represent the last paycheck of his player career. However, for the MLBPA it goes a bit deeper as this case could set a meaningful precedent. It brings to mind a 2010 dispute between Carlos Beltran and the New York Mets over a similar issue that never reached litigation. In any case, the verdict in this conflict between the MLBPA and the Yankees could either be the final insult for foolish free-agent spenders or a sign to those same regretful investors that there are in fact legal ways to wriggle their way out of those abominable contracts.

*wRC+ means weighted Runs Created adjusted. This statistic is meant take external factors (such as ballpark or era) into account to paint a picture of a player’s overall value to any given MLB team. 100 represents league average, so a player with a wRC+ of 150 means that player is 50% better than league average and vice versa. wRC+ is widely regarded as one of the best indicators of a player’s true value.

NBA looks internationally with G League Franchise in Mexico City

The NBA just showed everyone why it is the most dynamic league in sports with the announcement of its landmark partnership with the Capitanes, the first professional G League team outside of the U.S. and Canada. Between the NBA, NFL and MLB, all three associations have had an eye towards international expansion and have played games in Mexico, England, Japan, China and Australia in recent years. However, the NBA has become the first to officially open a franchise outside of the U.S.-Canadian markets. The Capitanes were established in 2016 and currently play in Mexico’s own professional basketball league, la Liga Nacional de Baloncesto Profesional, however will debut in the G League in the 2020-2021 season for an initial term of 5 years.

The possibilities with this move are endless and really allows the NBA to become creative in rethinking the G League and minor league basketball as a whole. For one, the Capitanes will be playing at the Gimnasio Juan de la Barrera in Mexico City which represents the largest media market in North America. The NBA can test this market for its viability for professional basketball, leaving the door open to a potential NBA league team in the future and could even become a two-team city like New York or Los Angeles down the road.

As evidence, for the fourth season in a row, Mexico City has been the host to two regular season games and saw the Mavericks and Pistons play this week in an event that underscored the global nature of NBA. Before the game, Luka Doncic, a Slovenian 20-year old who played for Real Madrid, addressed a crowd in fluent Spanish while representing a team from Texas. You can watch the clip here and instantly recognize the opportunity that exists for the NBA in Mexico.

A large part of the NBA’s appeal is its diversity, both domestically and internationally. It has been praised as the “industry leader among men’s sports for racial and gender hiring practices” by TIDES, the authority on diversity and ethics in sports, while also boasting players from countries around the world such as superstars Giannis Antetokounmpo from Greece and Joel Embiid from Cameroon as well as retirees like Yao Ming of China and Spain’s Pau Gasol. Interestingly enough, though Hispanic viewers represent 11% of the NBA viewership, outside of Dominican-born Al Horford and Argentina’s Manu Ginobli, Latin America is not known for sending much talent to the NBA. However, the league’s expansion to Mexico could inspire a generation of NBA hopefuls and the next Latin American-born star might be the spark that lights up basketball culture across the region.

This is exactly why a G League in Mexico now opens up so many possibilities for the NBA in the future. As it stands now, two of the NBA’s 30 teams, the Nuggets and Trailblazers, do not have a G League affiliate and instead send their developmental prospects to play on other G League teams. This is far from ideal given the lack of control they have over this development process, however the lack of uniformity could also allow the NBA to pivot completely from how G League teams are conceptualized.

Let’s get crazy for a second and imagine that the NBA adopts a structure similar to that of professional soccer in Spain and made tiers of teams that would be promoted and demoted based on season results. Thus, the NBA would represent tier 1, the G League would represent tier 2, and let’s say Mexico’s la Liga Nacional de Baloncesto Profesional (LNBP) would represent tier 3. The NBA could then introduce a tournament toward the end of the regular season for the bottom four teams and demote the loser of the bracket to tier 2, meanwhile champion of the G League would move up and take the spot of that losing team. The same would happen the last place team of the G League and the champion of the LNBP.

As wild as it is, it would completely take the incentive away from tanking, while adding another “playoffs” of sorts that avid NBA fans would tune in for. Moreover, the ability to reimagine G League teams lowers the barrier to entry for other G league teams that formerly would have needed to be an affiliate of an NBA team. It also allows the opportunity for a team like the Capitanes to have a chance to become an NBA team by winning the G League title and affords more market freedom to both the players and teams.  Again, the possibilities are endless but at the very least, ensure that the future of professional basketball is in good hands with Adam Silver’s focus on the international stage.

Quick note: Sending thoughts and prayers out to former NBA commissioner David Stern who underwent emergency surgery for a brain hemorrhage he suffered this week. Stern served as commissioner for 30 years and was instrumental in expanding the NBA from 10 franchises to 30 and broadening the NBA to a more global audience.

Boxer Patrick Day Passes Away Four Days After Knockout

Last month, the sporting world was struck by the news of the passing of professional boxer Patrick Day. Following a knockout loss to Charles Conwell in a super welterweight title bout, Day fell into a coma and four days later, died from brain trauma injuries. The phenomenon of boxing-related deaths is nothing new, however debate surrounding the ethics, safety, and legal ramifications of the sport is on the rise in light of this tragic case and others.

The immediate reaction has been quite polarized with some saying that death is simply part of the risk that is run in participating in such a violent sport, while others have called for the abolition of boxing entirely. However, the most pragmatic solution came from Day’s promoter, Lou DiBella, who called for better safety measures to ensure more protections for those in the ring. This week, he outlined a number of suggestions that would increase safety such as elevated scrutiny of Performance Enhancing Drug (PED) use and more attention toward weight loss and dehydration. Others have called for the sport to go a step further by adding increased padding to gloves and headgear and shortening fights.

The difficulty in changing the fundamental safety structure of any organization is the necessity to prove that a safety issue exists in the first place. Similar to what happened to large tobacco companies and what the pharmaceutical industry is currently dealing with, the NFL spent billions trying to disprove that there was in fact a safety problem with its product because of the negative consequences acknowledging such a problem would, and did, carry. Even though the NFL concussion settlement has already paid out almost 700 million dollars to retired veterans, the case is still ongoing and already has caused many players to retire earlier than they might have without the revelation of CTE and has made countless families to reconsider whether they want their child playing football.

So, the question for boxing is: does the sport need to acknowledge that it has a safety problem? Well, the answer is a lot harder than you might think. Two of the biggest forces in pushing the NFL to admit that it had its own safety issue were well-recognized trends of player brain injuries and public opinion pressures — both of which the sport of boxing lacks. The revelation of CTE in ex-NFL players such as Terry Long and Junior Seau became widespread predominantly because of headlines that detailed these former stars acting extremely out of character following their careers. That they both died from suicide grabbed the eye of the sports world and these “anomalies” evolved into evidence in what would become the trend that would force the NFL to overhaul its rules.

However, boxing doesn’t have the widespread publicity, star power, resources, nor a meaningful trend to begin considering modifying its safety regulations. Although the death of Patrick Day was the fourth boxing-related death in 2019, he was only the first American to die of injuries sustained in a bout since 2006. And, although four deaths in a single year is a new high for boxing, many other years have seen two and three deaths. Moreover, though there have been eight boxing-related passings since 2017, from 2014 to 2016 there was only one so there is really no consistent trend for proponents of increased safety to rely on.

These stats all come together to say that boxing likely won’t face much outside pressure to reshape its rules in the near future and so the onus for change is largely on boxing organizations. While there are few precedents on cases related to injuries sustained in boxing, two examples highlight the potential for future issues to arise. In 2017, the State of New York agreed to pay out $22 million to Magomed Abdusalamov, who suffered severe brain damage in the ring four years prior and was subject to less-than-adequate post-fight care that resulted in a loss of walking and speaking ability. Earlier this year, former boxer, Daniel Franco, sued his agency Roc Nation Sports for severe brain damage he sustained after being pressured into three fights despite concerns of his health and readiness. While the case is still ongoing, the lawsuit itself represents the culpability involved in boxing and another ruling in favor of the boxers would foreshadow additional player-safety suits in the future.

It is wholly possible that given the differences between the way professional football and professional boxing are structured, boxing will never face the sort of pressure that the NFL was forced to confront. Yet, as boxing-related brain trauma and deaths pile up, one has to wonder just where the organizations or their fans draw the line. The NFL clearly handled the CTE research poorly and continues to pay a steep price for doing so. If the sport of boxing and its administration is paying attention, any legal settlements and unfavorable media associated with future injuries far outweigh the cost of preemptive safety measures and additional research. It is easy to express regret and give the routine “thoughts & prayers,” but unless those involved at all levels of boxing demand change, Patrick Day’s life, and undoubtedly many others, will have been in vain. Either way, the decision is in boxing’s corner.