When I went into my third year of law school, I made the decision to settle my career in the world of Sports Law. After years of describing to the family what intellectual property was and how I would practice in the area of Patent Law, I had to once again describe to the family over holiday breaks what Sports Law was.
Recently, a story surrounding NBA Superstar Kevin Durant highlights how Sports Law differs from other parts of the law. Over this past weekend, Kevin Durant met with Net’s Owner Joe Tsai in London, England. During this meeting, it was reported that KD provided Tsai with an ultimatum to fire GM Sean Marks and head coach Steve Nash or honor his trade request. This trade request was made by KD on the first day of NBA free agency, June 30th.
Marks is currently in talks with the team regarding a contract extension. In mid-July, conflicting news surfaced about a contract extension for the GM that joined the team in 2016. The team denied that an extension agreement was reached between the two parties. Nash is currently halfway through his four-year contract as head coach with the Nets.
In the law, a party can be held liable for economic damages that occur when they act in a way that interferes with the contractual agreements of others. This is known in the law as tortious interference or intentional interference with contractual relations. Tortious interference falls under the larger umbrella of Torts Law. An example of tortious interference occurs when a party threatens to not provide goods or services necessary for the completion of another contract or interferes with a business relationship.
So this begs the question, why is KD’s demand not a tortious interference with the contracts of Marks and Nash? It seems that KD wants the Nets to terminate their contract with Nash and not sign any sort of contract that may have been signed with Marks. This would undoubtedly cause economic harm to the GM and coach.
The answer may lie in the structure of professional sports leagues. More specifically, the NBA has both a league constitution and a collective bargaining agreement between the NBA and NBPA (National Basketball Players Association). These documents have their own provisions that cover contractual interference. Tampering rules are covered in Article 35 of the NBA Constitution. However, looking into the wording of Article 35, it punishes players, GMs, coaches, and others for enticing others to their team. It is silent when it comes to pushing out personnel that is currently under contract with a team.
This situation of players wanting to force out coaches and GMs is nothing new in the NBA. In its history, the NBA has had several instances where players have influenced the hiring and firing of coaches and GMs. In 2004, Jason Kidd got into an argument with his coach Byron Scott in the locker room. Then boom, shortly after the locker room spat Scott was fired. In 2012, a weird saga of conflicting statements surrounded a conflict between Orlando Magic star Dwight Howard and coach Stan Van Gundy. Howard reportedly stormed into management’s office and demanded Van Gundy be fired. What resulted was a very, very awkward press conference, the firing of Van Gundy, and the eventual departure of Howard months later.
The Nets owner Joe Tsai has since tweeted his support for his staff indicating that he will be going against the ultimatum set forth by KD. Whether this leads to a trade or a tumultuous season with a disgruntled superstar on the roster, more will come forward before the start of the 2022 NBA season.
In the end, these stories of players demanding a change in management do not lead to any claims of tortious interference. While it can lead to fines from tampering rules, it does not lead to any sort of civil cases. The NBA seems to want to give the players this sort of power to determine their own future with a team by demanding a change in management.
This latest story about the Nets highlights how the world of sports differs from other areas of the law. In a business world, these acts would be considered interference with business opportunities and would lead to heavy monetary damages. This story also helps define Sports Law and can be an example that is used when you need to explain to your extended family how you define Sports Law.
Justin Mader is a recent graduate of the University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law where he earned a J.D. and a Sports and Entertainment Law Certificate. He can be reached via Twitter: @maderlaw and LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/justin-mader-15a602119/.