Sports Trades and the Law

A story yesterday morning about a trade of minor players between the Braves and Tigers got me thinking again about an issue that has crossed my mind from time to time: the ability of sports teams to “trade” players like commodities.

There aren’t many lines of work where you sign a contract with one company in one location and can be suddenly be shipped to another company, forced to move across the country–or even to Canada–and suffer the family disruption, tax implications, and other consequences at the whim of ownership. There have been instances where a player is traded three times in a single season.

Presumably, the argument is that players have agreed to those terms of employment as part of the collective bargaining process. Still, professional sports leagues operate as closed shops and there’s simply no way to earn a living [in one’s chosen line of work without being subject to those rules, making their “voluntariness” dubious].

In the course of my research, I stumbled across the excellent Sports Law Blog but was unable to find the answer to this question by searching their archives. I emailed one of its contributors, Mississippi College of Law assistant professor Michael McCann, and got a very interesting and helpful response:

I have addressed this topic in a couple of my law review articles, including “The Reckless Pursuit of Dominion: A Situational Analysis of the NBA and Diminishing Player Autonomy,” which was published in the University of Pennsylvania Journal of Labor and Employment Law last year. You have identified a legitimate criticism of how leagues operate, and one that, I believe, fans often miss when their minds fixate on the high salaries players earn. For similar reasons, I think people miss how prospective players in leagues have no sway over the terms and conditions that are bargained for by existing players. I wrote this:

    On one hand, the rookie wage scale has proven strikingly effective: Since its implementation, there has not been one draft-pick holdout. Moreover, and quite obviously, rookie NBA players still earn considerably high salaries when compared to the general population; $ 1.5 million for three years would likely satisfy most people’s needs and wants, although many of us would still prefer to choose our employers and location of employment – choices unavailable to rookie players.

    . . .

    Despite reflecting unequal bargaining power for all NBA players and an absence of any bargaining power for those players not yet in the NBA, collectively-bargained rules tend to receive automatic, almost reflexive endorsement by courts and much of the public. In essence, we tend to automatically conclude that if it was collectively-bargained, then it must represent the free will of the parties, so we should investigate no further. This opinion appears characteristic of the fundamental attribution error, a term used by psychologists to describe the tendency of humans to “look at any setting and make casual attributions [so that] certain key features of that setting – the observable actions of individuals – exert disproportionate influence over their evaluations.” Put more simply, we tend to focus on the easiest, most readily-understandable aspects of any relationship, such as two parties in negotiation and how they ultimately divide rights and obligations, while ignoring the more nuanced and less-observable aspects, such as the absence of certain parties in the negotiation and the situational pressures on all parties. For that reason, we prefer to see relationships as between dispositional or “rational” actors rather than between situational characters, even when this preference is uncorroborated.

    The fundamental attribution error may explain why collectively-bargained outcomes, which seem like decidedly explicit manifestations of the human disposition, enjoy broad deference, while we tend to miss that certain parties who are not involved in the bargaining may be more affected than any party to the bargaining. Indeed, premier amateur players, and particularly those on the cusp of entering the NBA, appear to have as much at stake in collectively-bargained rules for future players as do any existing NBA players.

    Along those lines, the fundamental attribution error may explain why we tend to overlook the situational influences on existing NBA players during collective-bargaining. Indeed, locked-out NBA players endure intense pressure to capitulate to league demands, particularly given the absence of viably-alternative basketball leagues. That is, the situation they encounter may distort their decision-making in ways that yield undesired “choices.” Nevertheless, because of the fundamental attribution error, external observers may be more affected by the simplicity of collectively-bargained rules than by either their instrumental components or consequential effects. As a result, the NBA enjoys wide latitude in asserting control over players, and in ways unappreciated by external observers.

As McCann notes, it’s unlikely anyone is going to feel sorry for the plight of professional athletes making multi-million dollar salaries. Still, the amateur draft, trade rules, and other limitations on player autonomy are quite unusual. Indeed, the only comparable labor situation that comes to mind is that of military personnel, especially in the days of conscription.

Fans have the expectation that players will display extraordinary loyalty to their teams, including extending taking a “home town discount” of millions of dollars when free agency (otherwise known as, “the right to work for whomever will hire you under whatever terms you can negotiate just like everyone else”) and “putting the needs of the team above personal goals.” Yet these same fans seem to have no problem with trading these players for better ones if the opportunity arises.

Crossposted at OTB Sports

UPDATE: McCann has related thoughts here apropos Kevin Garnett’s reaction to being traded to the Boston Celtics.

FILED UNDER: Blogosphere, Uncategorized, , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. 1. It is entirely a bad assumption to think of players as commodities. If this were true then it wouldn’t matter which player was traded, only that a player was traded. It is more correct to think of them, or more correctly the value of their skills, as assets or liabilities the organization possesses that may be traded, sold or bartered. The skills of the players under discussion here are at the very far end of the bell curve of abilities, and their relative value is determined by the ever increasing cost of gaining very small improvements along that curve.

    2. Any players involvement in this system is voluntary. It isn’t people being traded, but their time and expected or anticipated athletic contributions to the team’s goals or success, which, of course, are not always the same thing. Anyway, slavery went out a long time ago and the courts generally won’t enforce specific performance. Any time a player wants out they can walk away. Playing in these leagues is a privilege (actually a negotiated business transaction) not a right. I don’t understand what you meant when you wrote, “Still, professional sports leagues operate as closed shops and there’s simply no way to earn a living.”

    3. I believe it is a mistake to think of the teams as being independent of the league. The league has a strong interest in the viability of competition within the league and that is why something like the draft exists. It is primarily the league at some level, moreso than individual teams, which is in competition with all the other leagues or other destinations for the consumer’s entertainment dollar. I can’t see the NY Yankees playing the NY Giants if all the smaller franchises in each league disappeared. The costs and incentives are a little different, but the teams aren’t known as franchises for nothing.

    4. There are many jobs that require you be willing to move if you want to keep them, or certainly if you want to move up the ladder. Heck, I’ve had a couple of them and no one is going to mistake me for a professional athlete. High end business and technical consulting has many of the same attributes you are lamenting for these athletes.

    5. What poorly informed or economically illiterate fans think seems like a red herring to me.

    6. Are you familiar with the Big 10’s rule that any student who accepts an athletic scholarhsip from one Big 10 institution cannot receive a subsequent athletic scholarship from any other Big 10 institution. They can transfer but they can’t get a scholarship if they do so. The limits and restrictions on movement don’t just affect the professionals.

  2. James Joyner says:


    1. I mean “commodities” in the sense of “property” rather than “essentially interchangeable.”

    2. It’s “voluntary” on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. Sure, they can quit or not join but they undercut their means of pursuing their profession in so doing. Why should they be subject to rules — the draft, trading — that apply to no one else?

    3. I agree that the teams are part of a league. But players sign contracts with teams, not leagues.

    4. “There are many jobs that require you be willing to move if you want to keep them, or certainly if you want to move up the ladder.” Sure. Within a given firm, though.

    5. My point is that fans think about one side of the equation and not the other. It’s at the heart of the argument, really.

    6. I oppose the NCAA’s rules, too, but that’s another post.

  3. Broadly speaking, the teams are governed first and foremost by their franchise agreements with the league. The collective bargaining agreements are with the league, not the teams. As to staying within the firm, I am suggesting that you think of the firm as the league rather than the team. Steve Young leveraged two football leagues against each other. Bo Jackson leveraged leagues from two different sports against each other. In my large corporate firm experience, you may have some influence over which department (or team) you belong to, but you don’t control it. Of course, you can always go to another firm, if you have value that they covet.

  4. brainy435 says:

    I don’t think teams trade players as commodities, as much as trade their contracts as such. A business has a right to attain maximum value for its money, and unfortunately sometimes another players contract provides more value to a particular team.

    The player voluntarily signs a contract that lays out the guidelines such trades have to follow, and in this age of Poston’s and Rosenthal’s no one can complain that athletes interests aren’t well represented when those contracts are drawn up. Rookies are generally screwed with trade restrictions, but productive players can include them.

    Rookies do benefit from the drafts, though. If there were no drafts, they’d have to contact and negotiate with each team individually, and contract negotiations would be much more contentious. Without the ranking and slotting today’s drafts provide, rookies lose some evidence that other teams would value their services at a certain level.

  5. brainy435 says:

    Also, the military is not really comparable to athletics. I don’t think anyone… at least outside of Chicago fan forums… who would call for Lance Briggs to be locked up if he didn’t report to the Bears training camp within 29 days.

    Try getting away with holding out after getting orders to report to any command in any branch of service.