Sports Law Roundup – 7/21/2017

aslr

I used to write the sports technology roundup at TechGraphs, an internet website that died, and now I am writing the sports law roundup at ALDLAND, an internet website.

Here are the top sports-related legal stories from the past week:

  • Tennis match fixing: The Tennis Integrity Unit, an organization dedicated to investigating cheating in tennis, is investigating cheating in tennis. More specifically, the TIU is investigating four matches– three at Wimbledon and one at the French Open– for potential match fixing. Suspicious betting patterns triggered the investigation into these matches, for which additional information is not yet available to the public. While allegations of match fixing in major tournament matches are rare, tennis is particularly susceptible, given that it is an individual sport, and that most matches involve low-earning players and are not tracked by the general public. Three years ago, FiveThirtyEight’s Carl Bialik wrote an illuminating feature on the data-driven rise in tennis gambling, later cautioning that betting patterns alone were not conclusive evidence of match fixing.
  • Hou-Hugh Feud: One week after Houston Nutt sued his former employer, Ole Miss, for breach of his severance agreement for disparaging statements by school officials, including head football coach Hugh Freeze, Freeze has resigned. Athletic Director Ross Bjork, whose statements also appear in Nutt’s complaint, referred to Freeze’s unacceptable “pattern of personal misconduct” in connection with Freeze’s resignation and said that the school would have fired Freeze, who will receive no buyout on his $5 million annual contract, had Freeze not resigned. While the litany of alleged NCAA violations have been public for some time, the catalyst for Freeze’s sudden departure just a week after he represented Ole Miss at SEC Media Days appears to be new evidence that, on one occasion, Freeze used his university-issued cellphone to contact a Detroit-based escort. Freeze’s call records are under scrutiny as a result of the Nutt complaint, which cites those records in detail but contained no mention of the escort call. (And a note to those who see an opening for Lane Kiffin to return to the SEC in a head-coaching role, Paul doesn’t see it happening for Kiffin in Oxford, so you can bet it won’t.)
  • Simpson paroled: After serving nine years in prison for his role in a Las Vegas robbery, O.J. Simpson received a unanimous grant of parole from the Nevada Board of Parole Commissioners and could be out of prison as early as October. This week’s parole decision hardly could have come at a more perfect time: Norm Macdonald Live returns to the digital airwaves for a new season on Tuesday.

Sports court is in recess.

Saving Detroit: Even the umpires just wanna go home

Not a good showing for the Tigers tonight in Kansas City, where they backed starter Michael Fulmer with three errors, spotting the Royals a 4-0 lead after one inning, and an 8-0 lead after the third. Although Detroit managed to halve that lead with productive (if inefficient) sides of the fifth and sixth inning, the relief corps had their collective finger blown out of the hole in the dike, giving way to a 16-4 loss. By the time the ninth inning mercifully rolled around, there was zero chance of a Tigers win; indeed, it had been that way– literally– since the middle of the eighth inning, and functionally at least since the bottom of the sixth inning.

chart

This makes it hard to blame the home plate umpire, Mark Ripperger, for wanting to end things early. On the fourth pitch to Jim Adduci, who was batting for Detroit with two outs in the top of the ninth, that’s exactly what Ripperger did:

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Ripperger put everyone out of their shared misery with that called fourth strike on a pitch that was comfortably out of the zone. As a historical, practical matter, it’s true that the strike zone for left-handed batters tends to expand on the batter’s outside edge, but the call that ended the game looks like an outlier even when placed in context with the other calls Ripperger made during plate appearances by left-handed hitters tonight:

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Here’s how it looked on MLB.com’s rendering:

adduci ripperger

Finally, here’s a very chunky GIF made with freeware I’ll never use again, which shows things in the light most favorable to Ripperger:

adduci

Not egregious, probably, but erroneous, and seemingly out of character for Ripperger, at least tonight. With the game outcome already chiseled in stone, the officiating crew probably just wanted to go home, and they probably weren’t alone in that desire. Soon, one imagines, it will be time to say goodnight to this season.

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Previously
Saving Detroit: Yo, a J.D. Martinez trade comp – 7/19
Saving Detroit: Martinez trade triggers premature referendum on Avila – 7/19
Saving Detroit: Michael Fulmer has righted the ship
 – 6/27

Saving Detroit: Tigers in Retrograde – 6/19
Saving Detroit: Fixing Justin Upton
 – 5/31

Saving Detroit: Soft in the Middle Now – 5/30
Saving Detroit: Reliever Relief, Part 2 – 5/11
Saving Detroit: Reliever Relief – 5/8

Related
Is the next Mike Trout already in Detroit?

Saving Detroit: Yo, a J.D. Martinez trade comp

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Last night, I provided my instant reaction to the trade that sent J.D. Martinez to the Diamondbacks for three modest infield prospects. In that post, I considered what many are calling a “very light” return for the slugging outfielder in the context of another star-for-prospects trade made just days ago between the two Chicago teams involving starting pitcher Jose Quintana and suggested that a lesser return for Martinez was appropriate in light of his contract status (expiring), age, injury history, and inconsistent defense. I further suggested that, with multiple transactions still to be made over the next two weeks, it is too early for a referendum on Detroit’s general manager, Al Avila.

Avila is a first-year GM, but he worked alongside previous Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski for many years and is an experienced and well-regarded talent evaluator, so the job isn’t exactly new to him. Yet, in some Tigers fan circles right now, Avila is being pilloried as an unqualified, incapable rookie, while Dombrowski has never been remembered more fondly.

As I wrote last night, even if this trade becomes a blemish on Avila’s resume (the more thorough analyses of the prospects involved in the trade out this morning paint a more detailed picture but don’t really contradict the experts’ immediate reactions), it’s much too soon to declare him unfit for his current position. In addition to the Quintana trade discussed last night, though, there is another trade we can look to as a rough comparison between Avila and Dombrowski: the 2015 Yoenis Cespedes trade.

With the non-waiver trade deadline rapidly approach, on July 31, 2015 Dombrowski traded Cespedes to the New York Mets for two pitching prospects: Luis Cessa and Michael Fulmer. That trade, along with two previous ones that sent David Price to Toronto (for lefty pitching prospects Daniel Norris, Matt Boyd and Jairo Labourt) and Joakim Soria to Pittsburgh (for JaCoby Jones), surprised some Tigers fans, who were not necessarily soothed when Dombrowski described what looked to some like a sudden selloff as a mere “rebooting.” Not insignificantly, these trades immediately cost Dombrowski his job.

In isolation, the Cespedes trade– from Detroit’s standpoint– looks fairly similar to yesterday’s Martinez trade. Both players were on expiring contracts and thus guaranteed only to be rentals for the receiving teams (and an unusual clause in Cespedes’ contract actually made it less likely that the Mets would be able to sign him as a free agent, though Cespedes waived that provision and did remain in Queens). In the first half of 2015 (the split most readily available to me as a rough approximation of a snapshot at the trade deadline), Cespedes had a 121 wRC+ (45th among qualified hitters) and contributed 3.3 fWAR in 366 plate appearances. In the first half of 2017, Martinez posted a 156 wRC+ (would have been eighth among qualified hitters had he played enough to qualify) and contributed 1.4 fWAR in 215 plate appearances.

Cespedes memorably caught fire at the plate upon moving to New York, but he had been a lesser hitter than Martinez was over the same stretch– both in terms of a direct comparison and relative to his in-season peers– in 2017. Without a more detailed and complex analysis of the different trade markets in the different seasons, it’s difficult to say more about the two players’ relative value in this space.

The return for Cespedes– Cessa and Fulmer– was more lauded both at the time and now, in retrospect, than the return for Martinez. Fulmer immediately was highlighted as a significant prospect, and he turned in a full-season performance the following season that earned him rookie-of-the-year honors and some Cy Young votes, and he was named to his first All-Star team this season. (Cessa never played for the Tigers, who shipped him to the Yankees that offseason as part of a package that returned Justin Wilson, the team’s current closer and valuable trade chip.)

We don’t have two years of hindsight from which to assess the future development of Dawel Lugo, Sergio Alcantara, and Jose King, but, from my review of the assessments of these players by experienced prospect writers, it’s hard to see a Fulmer-caliber player among them. It remains too early to render significant judgments about Avila’s capabilities as a front-office leader, and Lugo, Alcantara, and King may have been the best available return for Martinez on the current market. To the extent Dombrowski’s 2015 Cespedes trade is an adequate comp for Avila’s 2017 Martinez trade, though, it’s not one that– in isolation– reflects especially well on Avila.   Continue reading

Saving Detroit: Martinez trade triggers premature referendum on Avila

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Shortly before tonight’s game against the Royals in Kansas City, the Detroit Tigers traded right fielder J.D. Martinez to the Arizona Diamondbacks in exchange for three infield prospects: Dawel Lugo, Sergio Alcantara, and Jose King.

As he has in every season since he joined the Tigers and reconstructed his swing, Martinez has been among the best hitters in baseball in 2017. If he had enough plate appearances to qualify, he would be the fifth best hitter in baseball by wRC+ (162) to this point in the current season. He doesn’t yet have enough plate appearances to qualify, though, because he again missed time due to injury this year, and his defensive contributions continue to oscillate between positive and negative. He’s also a rental, with free agency and a significant payday headed his direction this offseason.

That last part is the reason the Tigers had to trade Martinez this month. In the combined absence of an ability to resign him on the open market and of a currently competitive team, they had to cash out whatever value they could now. Still, most Detroit fans are reacting to this trade with extreme disappointment, and national observers are calling the Tigers’ return for Martinez “very light.”

Yes, Martinez likely is going to crush left-handed pitching in the NL West and see his power numbers soar even higher in the thin desert air, but he’s still a rental with an inky injury report. Tigers fans understandably came to love Martinez, but their apparent hopes that his always inevitable trade would return a prospect haul the likes of which the White Sox just secured from their crosstown rival in exchange for Jose Quintana are not reasonable. Since 2014, Martinez has been worth 9.2 WARP and Quintana has been worth 12.7 WARP. (Simply for context, Miguel Cabrera contributed 14.5 WARP over that period.) The new Cubs pitcher also is over a year younger than Martinez and has team-friendly years remaining on his contract. It makes sense that trading Quintana would net the White Sox a package including one of the sport’s overall top prospects. Ten weeks of Martinez simply pales in comparison.

The Tigers’ trade has generated plenty of criticism of the team’s first-year general manager, Al Avila. I am not a prospect scout, but, from the perspective of the team’s fan base, I think much of this criticism is, at a minimum, premature. Avila has many years of experience as an assistant general manager under Dave Dombrowski and is well-regarded as a talent evaluator. He is entitled to the same benefit of the doubt fans accorded Dombrowski, whose transactions were regarded with assumed confidence and assessed together, rather than individually.

Still, it is difficult not to at least be a little bit disappointed right now, when the clear weight of the initial assessments of this trade do not cast Detroit’s position in a favorable light.

For Detroit, the 2006-2016 run is over and the proverbial window is closed. The next two weeks are of critical importance to this team’s future. Maybe they stumbled out of the gate with tonight’s trade, but there are more moves to be made. Keep an eye on Justin Wilson, Alex Avila, and even Justin Verlander. Painful as it feels, this, for better and worse, is how a new age of Detroit baseball begins.

______________________________________________

Previously
Saving Detroit: Michael Fulmer has righted the ship – 6/27
Saving Detroit: Tigers in Retrograde – 6/19
Saving Detroit: Fixing Justin Upton
 – 5/31

Saving Detroit: Soft in the Middle Now – 5/30
Saving Detroit: Reliever Relief, Part 2 – 5/11
Saving Detroit: Reliever Relief – 5/8

Related
Is the next Mike Trout already in Detroit?
Man vs. Machine

Sports Law Roundup – 7/14/2017

aslr

I used to write the sports technology roundup at TechGraphs, an internet website that died, and now I am writing the sports law roundup at ALDLAND, an internet website.

Here are the top sports-related legal stories from the past week:

  • Hou-Hugh Feud: Houston Nutt, which is a real human man’s name, is the former head football coach at Ole Miss. He has sued that school and its athletic department because, he alleges, school representatives’ public statements linking an ongoing NCAA investigation of the university’s football program to Nutt violated a term of the 2011 severance agreement between Nutt and Ole Miss precluding the university from, in the complaint’s words, “making any statement whatsoever relative to Coach Nutt’s tenure as an employee of Ole Miss that might damage or harm his reputation as a football coach. Ole Miss was contractually prohibited from making any statement whatsoever, truthful or not, that may damage or harm Coach Nutt’s reputation.” The complaint highlights, in substantial detail, statements to reporters by Ole Miss Athletic Director Ross Bjork, Sports Information Director Kyle Campbell, and current head football coach Hugh Freeze, whose scheduled appearance at SEC Media Days was twenty-four hours after Nutt filed his lawsuit. Freeze did not directly address the allegations that day, saying only that he was not happy with the “ironic” timing of the filing of the suit and that he hadn’t seen Nutt in years. Freeze also read a prepared no-comment statement during his turn at the podium, thereafter referring to the NCAA investigation– and, indirectly, the lawsuit– as “the lot that we’ve inherited or caused in some cases,” a statement Nutt likely will cite as Freeze’s unrepentant casting of blame on Nutt.
  • Cheerleader wages: In May, the Milwaukee Bucks and Lauren Herington, a former cheerleader for the team who alleged that the team violated federal and state labor laws by underpaying her and her fellow cheerleaders, reached a $250,000 settlement of Herington’s proposed class action lawsuit that provided for the settlement funds to be divided as follows: $10,000 for Herington; $115,000 for Herington’s attorneys; and unspecified shares of the remaining $125,000 to Herington and other would-be class members who opt into the settlement based on their hours worked during the three-year period (2012-15) at issue. Now, the judge overseeing the case conditionally certified it as a collective action for settlement purposes but refused to approve the settlement agreement itself, explaining that he currently lacks sufficient information to determine “whether the settlement ‘is a fair and reasonable resolution’ of” the dispute. Prior reports indicated that the $250,000 settlement amount was significantly less than what some other teams paid to resolve similar lawsuits.
  • Daily Fantasy Sports: Last month, the inevitable merger between DraftKings and FanDuel announced last November hit a probably inevitable regulatory hurdle when the Federal Trade Commission filed a lawsuit in an attempt to block the merger, and a judge granted the FTC a temporary restraining order that halted the merger. In an email to users sent yesterday, DraftKings announced that it has “formally terminated our merger with FanDuel and will withdraw litigation from [sic?]” the FTC.
  • Baseball DUI: This spring, a South Korean court sentenced Pittsburgh Pirates infielder Jung Ho Kang to eight months in prison after the player admitted guilt on a DUI charge. The prison sentence was Kang’s first, but it arose out of his third DUI arrest in his native country. As a result, Kang had trouble securing a visa to reenter the U.S., which caused him to miss all of spring training, and, now, the entire first half of the current MLB season. This week, Pirates GM Neal Huntington said that one could “pretty much eliminate the thought” that Kang would play for Pittsburgh in 2017, and that the team has turned its “optimistic” eyes toward a 2018 return.
  • Umpire discrimination: Last week, Angel Hernandez, a longtime MLB umpire who is of Cuban descent, sued the league on claims arising out of general allegations of racial discrimination against minority umpires in promotions to crew chief status and in World Series assignments, among other claims. This week, FanGraphs identified Hernandez as the umpire responsible for the worst called strike of the first half of the 2017 season.

Sports court is in recess.

Swansongs, Vol. 3

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It has been exactly ten months since an occasion has arisen to file a new entry in this series on Atlanta Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson. Thankfully, last night’s win in an unusual game on the road against the Nationals provided an opportunity to revisit the former Vanderbilt star and top overall pick in the MLB draft.

With the Braves leading the Nationals 5-2 in the bottom of the eighth inning, Swanson, positioned on the first-base side of second as part of an infield shift in place against Nationals batter Matt Wieters, snagged a late one-hopper behind him that caused him to go to the ground. Swanson nevertheless was able to flip the ball to the covering third baseman, who went on to complete the inning-ending double play. Full video is available here.

Back in September, when I last wrote about Swanson here, it would’ve been difficult to believe that it wouldn’t be until nearly the All Star break before I would write about him again. Now, the All Star game comes as something of a sore subject in this context. My sure bet for 2017 NL rookie of the year, Swanson wasn’t even among the top five ASG vote-getters at his position.

If you, brave soul, have watched any Atlanta baseball games this year, though this doesn’t come as much of a surprise. In 145 plate appearances last season, Swanson was roughly average at the plate (107 wRC+; but cf. .303 TAv ). This was the source of excitement about Swanson. Everyone knew his glove would play at short, and the evidence of an average-to-slightly-above-average bat suggested great promise for his future. It’s far too soon to abandon hope in that promise, of course; after all, Swanson’s only twenty-three years old. For the time being, though, Swanson appears to have left that bat of his back in 2016. So far this season, he’s been a decidedly below-average performer at the plate (62 wRC+, .234 TAv). By the FanGraphs’ metric, no other shortstop has been worse than Swanson on offense through the same number of plate appearances. While part of that is due to a very rough start, his performance since then hasn’t exactly been a consistent upward climb.

Since Swanson’s defense continues to be solid, the question remains whether he’ll be able to find his batting legs again in the second half of this season. The good– if tentatively so– news is that he at least appears to be trying to correct course. One of the unusual things about Swanson’s approach through the first quarter of the 2017 season was a large dropoff in his swing rates. Just as suddenly as he stopped swinging, perhaps due to a lack of confidence after poor results, though, he– sometime around the end of May and the beginning of June– began swinging again, and generally doing so more than ever.

swansonswing 7-6-17

(There is a way to present this that’s even more visually dramatic, but I’m learning that some readers may prefer the telling of a story with one graph rather than three or nine.)

There’s a lot of noise in the rest of Swanson’s offensive data, and the improved results haven’t yet surfaced, but there’s evidence that Swanson– along with new Braves hitting coach Kevin Seitzer– is tinkering. Publicly, the entire coaching staff has been nothing but supportive of Swanson throughout his struggles, speaking both to his efforts at improvement and his confidence, the latter undoubtedly aided by the team’s refusal to send Swanson down to the minors.

Swanson’s going to have to do more than just swing the bat if he wants to get back to helping his team on offense as well as defense, of course. Fortunately, there is some indirect evidence that Swanson is on the right track. As Swanson began increasing his swing rates a month ago, opposing pitchers– whose behavioral changes sometimes are the best indicators of a batter’s changing level of success– started decreasing the number of pitches they threw him in the strike zone, often an indication that they view the batter as a more dangerous hitter.

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On the other hand, it could be less a sign of respect for Swanson’s bat and more a simple recognition that Swanson’s swinging more at everything these days. Without the results, it’s hard to tell. Even though it isn’t likely to conclude with a rookie of the year trophy, tThe story of the second half of Swanson’s 2017 is going to be an interesting one.

 

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Previously
Swansongs, Vol. 2
Swansongs, Vol. 1

Sports Law Roundup – 7/7/2017

aslr

I used to write the sports technology roundup at TechGraphs, an internet website that died, and now I am writing the sports law roundup at ALDLAND, an internet website.

After a break for the holiday weekend, here are the top sports-related legal stories:

  • NASCAR tune up: NASCAR driver Mike Wallace and members of his family have sued concert promoter and hospitality entities after the Wallace family says employees of Live Nation’s lawn care contractor brutally attacked them in the VIP parking lot outside a Rascal Flatts concert in Charlotte.
  • Minor League baseball wages: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has rejected claims by players in one of the minor league baseball player lawsuits proceeding as a direct challenge to MLB’s longstanding antitrust exemption. The court explained that it was bound by Supreme Court precedent to uphold the exemption, and that the players’ allegations– centering around an assertion that MLB and its teams colluded to suppress minor league player wages– involve “precisely the type of activity that falls within the antitrust exemption for the business of baseball.” This arguably was not the worst result for minor league baseball players in recent days, however.
  • Umpire discrimination: Angel Hernandez, a longtime MLB umpire who is of Cuban descent, has sued the league on claims arising out of general allegations of racial discrimination against minority umpires in promotions to crew chief status and in World Series assignments, as well as specific allegations of Hernandez’s personal targeting by Joe Torre, who began working as MLB’s umpire supervisor in 2011. On the latter issue, Hernandez claims to trace a negative change in his reviews beginning in 2011 to friction between him and Torre that originated a decade prior, when Torre was the manager of the New York Yankees.
  • Athlete financial adviser: In April, a former financial adviser to former San Antonio Spurs star Tim Duncan pled guilty to wire fraud in connection with allegations that the adviser tricked Duncan into guaranteeing a $6 million loan to a sportswear company the adviser controlled. Last week, a judge sentenced the adviser to four years in prison and ordered him to pay restitution in the amount of $7.5 million, the total amount of Duncan’s investment in the adviser’s company.
  • Penn State football coach: Not content to stay out of the legal news, Penn State has sued Bob Shoop, a former Nittany Lion football defensive coordinator now filling the same role for the University of Tennessee, alleging that he breached his employment contract with PSU when he left for the UT gig during the term of the contract. That contract included a provision that, if Shoop left early to take anything other than a head coaching position, he would owe Penn State fifty percent of his base salary. In the lawsuit, PSU is seeking $891,856 in damages. The move to Knoxville is a return to Tennessee and the SEC for Shoop, who was James Franklin’s defensive coordinator  at Vanderbilt from 2011 until he joined Franklin’s dead-of-night departure from Nashville to State College in 2014.
  • Gambling: The Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal in a case involving the State of New Jersey’s challenge to a 1992 federal ban on expansions to sports betting outside of the states– Nevada, Montana, Oregon, and Delaware– where it was legal at the time.
  • Fox Sports 1 executive: Fox Sports has terminated Jamie Horowitz, a top television executive responsible for the “embrace debate” brand of sports programming first at ESPN and now at FS1, because he is the subject of a sexual harassment investigation at the latter network. Horowitz had been the president of Fox Sports’ national networks since May 2015 and was responsible for bringing Skip Bayless, Jason Whitlock, and Colin Cowherd to the FS1 airwaves. Most recently, Horowitz was responsible for substantial layoffs in Fox Sports’ digital group and an elimination of all written content at FoxSports.com.
  • NBA arena security: A former manager of security operations at Philips Arena, the home of the Atlanta Hawks, has sued ATL Hawks LLC, the company that owns the Hawks and the arena, alleging that he lost his job because he complained after white concert performers Axl Rose and Brian Wilson were allowed to bypass metal detectors a week after similar requests from black performers Drake and Future were denied.

Sports court is in recess.

Live podcast announcement: Man vs. Pizza Machine

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I’m headed back into the Pizza Cave tonight to discuss the hot topic on the Detroit sports streets, Miguel Cabrera versus Albert Pujols, with legendary Southeast Michigan restaurateur-podcaster Fredi the Pizzaman live at 5:00 pm Eastern. Although you can listen to it later on, keep in mind that this is a live podcast, meaning that you can stream it as it’s being recorded, which I recommend.

Tune in tonight at 5:00 by clicking here to listen live or check out the archives later on.