Basketball has always taught its players the value of teamwork, physical rigor and practice. Today, contract law can be added to the basketball syllabus, when a two-week arbitration hearing for ex-Golden State Warriors guard Latrell Sprewell ends in New York. Warriors officials say that at a Dec. 1 practice Sprewell choked and threatened to kill his coach, P.J. Carlesimo. He then left the gym, but returned 15 minutes later and allegedly attacked Carlesimo a second time. Consequently, the Warriors first suspended Sprewell for 10 games without pay, then terminated the remaining three years of his $32 million contract. In addition, the National Basketball Association suspended Sprewell for a year. This bans him from all NBA events, and prohibits him from contracting with any team until December.
The NBA, as well as basketball team managers, are right to discipline players for insubordination. But the penalties must be consistent. The National Basketball Players Association argues that Sprewell’s punishment is unprecedented and unduly severe. His year-long NBA ban is the harshest non-drug penalty in league history. And for the first time ever, a player’s contract has been revoked under Section 16 of the Uniform Player Contract, which forbids unethical conduct and moral turpitude.
Sprewell’s arbitrator, John D. Feerick, dean of the Fordham University Law School, has a month to decide if Sprewell’s punishment is justified. He could reduce or uphold the NBA suspension. His ruling, which is binding under the collective bargaining agreement, could set a precedent for future arbitration cases. As such, he could define for years to come the standards of conduct to which players are held. This might change the entertainment value of a sport largely defined by individual stars, many of whom are known for unorthodox behavior.
Feerick’s decision will also say a great deal about players’ contractual rights and obligations. Billy Hunter, executive director of the players’ association, insists that if Feerick upholds the contract nullification, “It means basically no one has a guaranteed contract,” and “everybody becomes vulnerable.” This may be an overstatement. Sprewell, for one, expects to join another NBA team as soon as his suspension expires, recovering the millions he has lost. Moreover, he did violate Section 16 — an important but often overlooked provision. Feerick may determine that this is sufficient ground for contract termination. Depending on the outcome of the hearing, unruly basketball players could be forced to become nicer guys.
Sprewell claims that verbal abuse from Carlesimo led him to attack his coach. Nevertheless, to a great extent, he deserves the punishment he received. The NBA, having made an example out of Sprewell, must now demonstrate its ability to apply the same rules to all players. Physical assault is despicable, regardless of the target. Yet the NBA did not impose a one-year suspension on Charles Barkley for hurling a man through a plate-glass window or on Dennis Rodman for hitting a photographer. The NBA must enforce its rules consistently. It must discipline all players who attack coaches, fans, umpires and cameramen the way it disciplined Sprewell.