Sports Law Blog
All things legal relating
to the sports world...
Wednesday, August 16, 2006
Shoud Physicals Come Before Trades?
The recent failed Lee Suggs trade raises a curious aspect of the NFL regime for player trades. Two teams negotiate for the terms of a player’s reassignment, and once terms are “final,” the traded player reports to his new team. Only at that point does the new team conduct a medical examination of the traded player. The team gaining the player then faces a dichotomous choice: either declare the player has “failed” the physical, invalidating the trade, or declare that he has “passed,” such that the terms of the trade become finalized. Notably, the team conducting the physical does not have the option to renegotiate terms of the trade based on troubling, but not necessarily fatal medical discoveries. In addition, the team giving up the player has limited or no right to challenge the medical determination made by the acquiring team.
This is an odd way of trading, certainly foreign to most transactions in goods and services, and it may not represent the economically efficient arrangement. Consider the NFL trading regime as applied to, say, the sale of a used car. Let’s say I am selling a used car in which you are interested. As with a potential traded player in the NFL context, you have limited information about the vehicle in question; certainly, I, the seller of the vehicle, have more information. The NFL’s approach, applied to the auto context, would mean that you could look at film of other people driving the car (equivalent to watching film of an NFL player), but that you could neither test drive the car, nor take it to your friendly neighborhood mechanic, until after we had agreed to terms of the sale. Once we had inked the terms of the sale – and only then – you could take it and have someone more knowledgeable look under the vehicle’s hood, to see what it’s packing. At that point, the mechanic (presumably according to your instructions or specifications) could declare that the car either “passed” or “failed” its examination. If the car failed, you would be able to return it to me, along with a torn-up copy of our trade agreement. You would not be able to renegotiate a different price; nor would I have any power to challenge your assessment (or rather, your mechanic’s assessment) that the car was a lemon.
Can anyone imagine buying a used car this way? Yet that’s exactly how NFL trades seem to work. Wouldn’t more efficient trades be possible if the potential acquiring team could conduct a physical of the player before signing the terms of the deal? That way, the team would not face the “all-or-nothing” choice it does under the current regime. If the player were hobbled by some surprising injuries, the potential acquirer could negotiate for reductions in price (or, since trades aren’t for “cash” in American sports, other types of compensation).
To be sure, a proposal to allow pre-trade physicals might upset some players. After all, being physically examined would tip off the player that a trade was coming – something that a player under the current scheme might not find out until the deal is announced to the public. But at the same time, certainly players like Suggs would appreciate not being declared “physically unfit” to play the game – a moniker that can’t be good for a player’s next contract bottom line.
At a minimum, it seems that the NFL should clarify the standards under which teams are permitted to declare a player has “failed” his medical exam. That would reduce the likelihood of the kind of bad feeling expressed by the Cleveland Browns this week, according to the San Jose Mercury News:
The Browns released a statement that disputes the Jets' medical decision, with GM Phil Savage saying that Suggs will return to practice immediately.