Sports Law Blog
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Friday, August 03, 2007
Roy Tarpley, Addiction, and the American with Disabilities Act
Roy Tarpley is among the best basketball players who never starred in the NBA. After a stellar career at the University of Michigan, Tarpley, a 7'0 power forward, was selected 7th overall by the Dallas Mavericks in the infamous 1986 NBA Draft, a draft that saw the late Lenny Bias drafted second by the Boston Celtics and Chris Washburn--who Sports Illustrated recently named the second worst draft bust in NBA history--taken third by the Golden State Warriors.
Tarpley initially seemed like a star in the making. He made the NBA's all-rookie team, and, in his sophomore season (1987-88), won the NBA's 6th Man of the Year Award, averaging 14 points and 12 rebounds a game, while playing in almost every game for a team that won 53 games and made it to the Western Conference finals. During this time, however, Tarpley sought out counseling and treatment for a worsening addiction to cocaine and alcohol.
Unfortunately, neither the counseling nor treatment worked. In fact, Tarpley's third season proved to be the beginning of his career's end. He started to suffer a series of knee injuries, which hampered his play and caused him to miss games. The time off wasn't a blessing, as he more heavily dabbled in cocaine and other drugs, and also began consuming more alcohol. He then proceeded to fail mandatory drug tests and the NBA suspended him indefinitely on January 5, 1989. The NBA would allow him back for the 89-90 season, but six games into that season, Tarpley was arrested for driving while intoxicated and resisting arrest. The 1990-91 season didn't fare much better for Tarpley, who blew out his knee five games into the season, causing him to miss the rest of the season. Still sidelined with a knee injury in March of 1991, Tarpley was arrested again for driving while intoxicated, and the NBA suspended him for it.
Tarpley didn't play in the 1991-92 season because, after failing his third drug test, the NBA banned him for life under the league's collectively-bargained anti-drug program. Tarpley would then play in Greece for a couple of years. He enjoyed success over there, leading his team, Aris BC Salonica, to a championship (the European Cup) in 1993.
But Tarpley wanted to return to the U.S., where his family lived, and get back in the NBA. So in 1994, Tarpley applied for reinstatement to the NBA, and the league granted it. The then 29-year-old signed a 6-year contract with the Mavericks for $20 million, and played well for 55 games in the 94-95 season, averaging 13 points and 8 rebounds a game, but he then failed another drug test--for using alcohol and violating the terms of a court-imposed personal after-care program. With the third strike, the NBA kicked him out for good, thus negating the remainder of his $20 million contract.
Tarpley then returned to Greece, where he would play for the next few years. In 2000, however, he came back to the U.S. and, for unclear reasons, did not work. By 2003, Tarpley was completely broke, and he applied for reinstatement to the NBA. His financial woes primarily stemmed from two civil judgments entered against him in 2000 totaling about $8.5 million -- as reported by a Dallas Business Journal article in 2003, "both judgments stemmed from the 1997 death of a Good Samaritan who tried to help a girlfriend of Tarpley's who was behind the wheel of a car he owned that flipped over on a freeway." At that time, things looked really bleak for Tarpley:
The man who in 1994 signed a reported six-year, $20 million contract with the Mavericks said in his bankruptcy petition that he did not have any cash on hand, checking or savings accounts, household goods, investments or cars.
Although John Lucas fought hard for Tarpley's reinstatement, noting that Tarpley had remained in good physical condition and had repeatedly passed drug tests (including those for alcohol, the substance which led to Tarpley being banned in 1995), the NBA rejected the petition. Tarpley tried several more petitions, but the NBA kept saying no. Still wanting to play pro hoops, Tarpley signed with the Michigan Mayhem of the Continental Basketball Association, where he would play from 2003 to 2006. Although often injured, he excelled in his first season, averaging 16 points and 10 rebounds a game, while shooting almost 60% from the field. But he would be out of job in 2006, when his team disbanded. Tarpley was 41 at the time.
Should the NBA have reinstated Tarpley in 2003, when Tarpley had shown that he had been clean for years and was in good enough condition to land an NBA contract? Tarpley thinks so. And now so too does the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which ruled today that the NBA violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to reinstate him. The EEOC has tried unsuccessfully to mediate a settlement between Tarpley and the NBA, and he is seeking at least $6.5 million, according to his attorney Joe Walker, who said, "The goal of the whole action is to get him reinstated, get his name back, and also to compensate him for the loss he's incurred."
The ADA protects those with disabilities from discrimination, provided their disabilty is "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity." Alcoholics and drug addicts (although not those engaged in current use of illegal drugs) are protected by the ADA, provided they are able to perform the essential functions of the job. The EEOC believed that Tarpley offered enough evidence that he could play in the NBA, since he showed that he no longer used drugs and apparently had his alcoholism under control.
I find the EEOC's decision--which enables Tarpley to sue the NBA within the next 90 days---interesting because it suggests that the NBA and other pro leagues have to be careful when banning players for life when the root of the problem is a medical one. Although alcoholics and drug addicts are often blamed for "choosing" to engage in destructive behavior, recent studies on how the brain works suggest such behavior is largely not reflective of conscious choosing (see an article we have up on The Situationist entitled "The Science of Addiction, the Myth of Choice"). That's not to say that Tarpley shouldn't be held responsible for the consequences of his addition (certainly, driving a car while intoxicated deserves punishment), or that he didn't deserve a punishment of a reasonable length of time, particularly after repeated failures, but it does suggest that when leagues kick out players for life, they need to be careful in evaluating the underlying causes of behavior and the potential that people can eventually get better, as Tarpley seemed to do.
Another interesting consequence: even though the NBA and NBPA collectively-bargained the anti-drug policy, that collective-bargaining wasn't enough to defend the policy from governmental scrutiny. Collective bargaining, of course, doesn't insulate an agreement from federal disabilities law as it does for federal antitrust law, but in practice, it usually discourages governmental scrutiny. Tarpley defeating the NBA would more clearly establish that leagues and players should not expect their agreed-upon drug and alcohol policies to be exempt from legal challenge.
2009 Update: Tarpley has settled his lawsuit with the NBA and Mavericks and will receive an undisclosed amount of money.