Sports Law Blog
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Friday, January 12, 2007
The Legal and Social Policy Implications of Bill Walker's Knee Injury
In last Saturday's game at Texas A&M, Kansas State freshman Bill Walker tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. The injury ends the 06-07 season for the dynamic 6-6 Walker, whose play had drawn comparisons to a young Vince Carter and who ESPN's Chad Ford ranked as the third-best NBA Draft prospect among college freshmen (right after Kevin Durant and Greg Oden).
An ACL tear is obviously a serious injury, particularly for a player whose game is based largely on explosiveness and quickness (Celtics fans have been dealing with the same worries for the last two days after Tony Allen's terrible tear of the ACL, medial meniscus, and lateral meniscus). Perhaps the best news for Walker is that he suffered a tear of his ACL in his right knee back in 2003, and was able to fully recover. But you never know what will happen after such a serious knee injury. Just ask Randy Livingston, who, back in 1993, tore his ACL before his first college practice and was never the same.
So what's the legal angle with Walker's injury? He was considering a challenge to the new NBA age limit (and thanks to Michael Ryan of Bearcat News for the link). The age limit, which is contained in Article X:I(b)(i) of the NBA-NBPA collective bargaining agreement, requires that an amateur American player be at least 19 years old on December 31 of the year of the NBA draft and that at least one NBA season has passed from when he graduated from high school, or when he would have graduated from high school, and the NBA draft. The NBA has construed it to preclude Walker's eligibility in the 2007 NBA Draft, claiming that his high school class should be considered the class of 2008 (even though he has been a freshman at Kansas State this season). We discussed the specifics of this issue back last July, but basically the NBA contends that Walker--who prior to this injury projected as a first round pick in the 2007 NBA Draft, if eligible--did not complete his senior year on time last spring, while Walker has argued, correctly so in my opinion, that he would have graduated last spring, but for a transcript error made by academic administrators. Walker's argument was endorsed by the Ohio High School Athletic Association, whose expertise in his case was to assess Walker's credits and which obviously has no stake in whether Walker could turn pro.
I should stress that had Walker challenged the new rule, he would have challenged its application rather than its underlying legal merits. Granted, any time an application of a rule is challenged, its underlying legal merits can be called into question, but Walker's lawsuit probably would have been limited in scope. And in truth, it likely would have been redressed in mediation before any litigation commenced. Had Walker and counsel met with NBA officials, I suspect those officials would have ultimately acquiesced, since allowing Walker would not have in any way jeopardized the rule. It would have also, in my opinion, been the correct and fair move to make.
But Walker no longer seems poised to commence any lawsuit or negotiation. Such a serious injury alters his draft stock, at least for this year. He will probably spend the next eight months rehabbing his knee rather than dealing with a controversial lawsuit that may no longer be in his best interests.
We might also consider the social policy implications of Walker's plight. Here we have a 19-year-old man who has suffered a terrible injury that threatens what appears to be his most marketable and cherished skill: the ability to excel at basketball. Walker has presumably invested much of his life in honing that skill, probably at the expense of honing other talents and perhaps those skills that are scholastically-related. I have never met him, but like Arthur Agee and William Gates in the extraordinary documentary Hoop Dreams (1994), he has probably been "encouraged" by coaches and sneaker representatives and other self-interested (selfish?) actors to focus on basketball. The advice seemed to be working. But what happens if his basketball career is now over, or if he is no longer the next Vince Carter? Will those same people care about him? If not, who will?
That point lends itself to another point that is closer to the law: consider the human costs of an age-eligibility rule. If Walker had suffered the exact same injury while playing for an NBA team, he would likely have millions of guaranteed dollars coming his way under an existing contract. I know, money doesn't make one whole (despite what we tell our students in torts), but it certainly makes one better off--especially when one comes from financially-disadvantaged circumstances, as do many premier basketball players, and especially when one has invested so much of his learning time to a sport rather than to scholastics or other endeavors. I talked about these points in my posts Not Being Randy Livingston: The Jonathan Bender Story and The Power of Situation: Joakim Noah's Decision to Stay at Florida.
What will be Walker's life story if, because of this injury, he never earns a dime playing basketball? Should we, as sports fans, bear responsibility in making sure that he does alright, or is it okay that we will simply forget about him?