Academic journal article Journal of Corporation Law

"Put Me in Coach!" Recognizing NBA Players' Need for Legal Protection as Stakeholders in the League and Increased Participation in Governance

Academic journal article Journal of Corporation Law

"Put Me in Coach!" Recognizing NBA Players' Need for Legal Protection as Stakeholders in the League and Increased Participation in Governance

Article excerpt


The current cultural, economic, and societal influence sports have in our nation is unprecedented. This is especially true of the National Basketball Association (NBA). Current television broadcasting rights have nearly tripled, franchise valuations have soared, and for several seasons, average player salaries were near five million dollars.1 To top it off, the league debuted corporate sponsorship logos on uniforms for the first time this past season (2016-17).2 These are undeniably "fat times for the NBA. More money is pulsing through the system and into players' and teams' pockets than ever before."3 There has never been a time that the league was "more avidly and widely followed, domestically and globally, using whatever metric you prefer."4 As the league undergoes so much transformation, there are many important decisions-corporate, personnel, economic, and otherwise-to be made about how to sustain and expand the enterprise. It is unclear just how far this prolific growth will span. What is clear, however, is that the players themselves are not legally entitled to provide input in these processes, despite the fact that the decisions made impact them profoundly and, arguably, primarily.

The corporate decisions that owners and other key actors in governance make not only impact the players in their role as employees of the league, but also interests they have as stakeholders in the league. This is a classification that the NBA has yet to recognize, but as this Note argues, is necessary and equally as important as the players' employee classification. As employees, players hold interests in matters such as compensation, safe and healthy working conditions, and benefits. However, as stakeholders, players possess interests-comparable to the interests held by shareholders5-in the league's operations, sponsor and partnership decisions, disciplinary actions of team owners, and other terms of governance generally.6 Though there are areas where the interests of the player as both an employee and stakeholder converge, there are also remarkable distinctions that necessitate the separate recognition of each classification and which this Note will further address.

The divergence of interests that arise as result of the classification issue, and the fact that the players are not legally entitled to a seat at the decision-making table, are only exacerbated by the fact that the NBA exists (by way of its governance structure) in a de facto unregulated vacuum as far as traditional corporate, antitrust, labor, and employment law is concerned.7 This combination of factors is troubling from a legal standpoint because it permits a lack of accountability for key governance actors (either to one another or the players) for which legal recourse could be sought if necessary. There is no external oversight or regulation which the league is really being checked by, leaving the players in a position where they possess significant and cognizable interests, but no remedy to seek if those interests are infringed upon.

As the league's popularity and value have skyrocketed, so has the list of interests that players have in the league's governance and the need for legal safeguarding of them. In response to this parallel relationship, several measures aimed at player protection developed. The National Basketball Players Association (NBPA), a union, was created to advocate for players as employees addressing issues of collective bargaining, benefits, and other employment related concerns; while agents have assumed responsibility for handling several interest areas players have outside of their employment context.8 However, neither agents nor the NBPA have been able to adequately address players' interest in the sound league governance.

This Note discusses NBA players as stakeholders in the league whose interests under this classification can best be advocated for through legal entitlement to increased participation in league governance and how the NBA's current governance structure acts as an obstacle to fulfilling this goal. …

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