Monday, January 25, 2010
A New York Times story published last week provides all sorts of interesting details about the negotiations of basketball star Gilbert Arenas' contract with the Washington Wizards. Arenas has been in the news a lot lately. He brought some guns into the arena where the Wizards play and the guns allegedly figured in an argument he had with a teammate in the team locker room. Arenas was charged with, and plead guilty to, the felony of carrying an unlicensed handgun. The league has suspended him indefinitely.
The Times reports that Arenas represented himself in the negotiation of the contract. Maybe that's why his nickname is "Agent Zero." In order to avoid insulting him with a low-ball offer, the team offered him a very generous contract, with the option to take a bit less so that the Wizards could still retain some other top players. The result was a six year, $111 million deal.
The team still owes Arenas $80.2 million on the contract for the next four NBA seasons, but the Times suggests that the Wizards are seeking to avoid any further obligations by invoking the contract's morals clause, which is standard on all NBA contracts. The standard clause requires players to conform their personal conduct to standards of good citizenship, good character and good sportsmanship. By good character, the league means that players must not engage in acts of moral turpitude, whether criminal or non-criminal in nature.
This is a shockingly elastic standard that I would argue could be invoked at random. For example, last season, LeBron James refused to shake hands with opposing players after his team lost a playoff series. Many commentators viewed this conduct as evidence of poor sportsmanship, but there was no invocation of and no talk of invocation of the morals clause. Nor was there any such talk with respect to Kobe Bryant's morals clause although he allegedly admitted to shocking marital infidelities. Now, the reasons why the teams and the league did not invoke the morals clause in those cases are obvious, and I am not suggesting that the clauses should have been invoked. I am simply wondering about the boundaries of the teams' and the league's discretion in invoking the clause and whether that discretion does not render the clause void for vagueness.