Sports Law Blog
All things legal relating
to the sports world...
Tuesday, September 26, 2006
Revolving Doors in Sports: Conflicts of Interest When Players Go Front Office?
Congratulations to Steve Yzerman, recently retired from his role as a Detroit Redwing hockey player, on moving to a new job as “vice president” of the team. Thank goodness he'll be gainfully employed, since I’m sure his finances have taken a hit since his retirement at the end of last season.
In professional sports, some newly retired players take breaks to spend time with family and eventually return to positions with the same team or another franchise. Others move into broadcasting. Some dedicate their efforts to their outside businesses (so often restaurants) and other investments. Some become coaches at the college level. But what seems like a fairly large number move almost immediately into executive positions with the same franchises for which they played.
Such sudden moves may raise ethical issues and conflicts of interest, which is why many industries have formal regulations or informal customs to prevent it. Elected officials are often barred from lobbying the government for a period of time after leaving office. In the military, an enlisted soldier, sailor, airman or marine who receives an officer’s commission typically (by custom) is transferred to a different unit from the one in which he or she served as an enlisted person.
Is there reason to expect the sports industry to be free of conflicts when players come back through the revolving door? A couple of obvious concerns come to mind. Players no doubt develop friendships while on the team. Some of their locker-room mates may be loved, others loathed. It’s certainly possible to imagine that a player-turned executive may use their newfound power to reward friends or punish enemies – for instance, with more (or less) generous payouts come contract time. Such concerns might even surface near the end of a players’ career. While Yzerman’s new post, for example, was just announced, it’s safe to assume that at least some preliminary negotiations were under way before he decided to retire from the game. Might other players on the team treat a player soon to retire and expected to receive a front-office appointment with “kid gloves” during his final months as a player? Might coaches give the player extra playing time, or less onerous practice schedules, in an effort to curry favor with a likely future executive?
One might also worry that players acquire sensitive information about players’ and players’ unions. For instance, a player might learn about another player’s personal life, financial needs, health and well being. If that player retires and moves to the other side of the table, might we worry that he will offer such information to the franchise to earn other executives’ trust? A star player might be privy to discussions among union leaders about issues such as salary caps likely to surface at future collective bargaining sessions. Is there reason to worry that a player will pass such information to his franchise bosses upon taking an executive’s seat, such that team owners will gain an unfair advantage at the bargaining table? At a minimum, we might worry that retired players who immediately become executives are victims of sentiment when it comes to their former teammates and coaches. They might have a hard time making “hard decisions” to cut, fire, or punish their former pals. For franchises that are publicly owned, shareholders certainly want executives to be guided by concerns other than friendship.
To be sure, there are advantages to the revolving door in sports – a player has a huge advantage over a “man on the street” in terms of information about the inner workings of the franchise for which they played. I’m also not implying that any particular player has behaved unethically, and I have no reason to suspect that Yzerman will. But maybe sports should develop a formal or informal practice of having athletes take a bit of time off before moving into front office positions – just long enough that old grudges could heal and old friends can move on to other teams. Or, players could be encouraged to take executive positions with teams other than those for which they played.