Sports Law Roundup – 4/7/2017

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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:

    • MLB defamation: A judge will allow a defamation lawsuit brought by Washington Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman and former Philadelphia Phillies designated hitter Ryan Howard against Al Jazeera and two of its employees to proceed. The Ryans’ case relates to a documentary that aired on the television network in 2015 that included claims that they were among a group of players who purchased performance-enhancing drugs from an anti-aging clinic. In partially denying the defendants’ motion to dismiss the case, the judge explained that the argument that Al Jazeera and its employees simply were reporting the statement of an employee at the clinic “is unpersuasive, because a reasonable viewer could certainly have understood the documentary as a whole to be an endorsement of Sly’s claims.” The ruling was not a total victory for Howard and Zimmerman, however, as the judge did dismiss claims related to a related news article about the documentary, as well as all claims against one of the Al Jazeera employees, an undercover investigator. Since the airing of the documentary, the clinic employee has recanted his statements.
    • Athlete financial adviser: 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. He could spend as many as twenty years in prison and owe a fine of as much as $250,000, plus restitution to Duncan. Duncan filed a separate civil lawsuit against the advisor, which was stayed pending the resolution of the criminal action.
    • NFL streaming: The NFL and Amazon have reached a one-year agreement, reportedly valued at $50 million, that grants Amazon the exclusive streaming rights for ten of the NFL’s Thursday night games in 2017. Last year, the NFL partnered with Twitter on a streaming deal for the Thursday games reportedly worth $10 million.
    • NFL fax machine: A court has preliminarily approved a settlement in a case involving a claim that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers violated federal law by faxing unsolicited advertisements for game tickets to local businesses in 2009 and 2010. Final settlement payout numbers are not yet available, but, in the meantime, we can ask: did the faxes work?
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Sports court is in recess.

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Detroit Lions 2016 Wild Card preview

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Head coach Jim Caldwell has the Detroit Lions back in the playoffs for the second time in his three-year tenure. After ending the season with three consecutive losses, the Lions (9-7) will play the Seahawks tonight in Seattle in the first NFC wild card game, which kicks off at 8:15 Eastern on NBC.

Detroit’s playoff history in the Super Bowl era isn’t pretty. In the fifty seasons since the 1966 merger, the Lions have appeared in the postseason in just twelve of those seasons, winning just one game.

That one win, a 38-6 dismantling of the Dallas Cowboys on January 5, 1992, also was the last NFL playoff game hosted in Detroit, and one of only two ever in the Super Bowl era (not counting games, like Super Bowl XL, in which the Lions, obviously, did not participate).

The national press picked up on an interesting narrative following that win, which featured Barry Sanders, of course, and also Erik Kramer, whom they highlighted as “a strikebreaker,” or, in the words of Cowboys defenders Jack Del Rio (now the head coach of the Oakland Raiders, who have an AFC wildcard meeting with the Houston Texans this afternoon) and Tony Casillas, “a scab.” Kramer had played for Atlanta as a replacement player during the 1987 NFL strike, something that upset apparent union tough guys Del Rio and Casillas and, the New York Times postulated, Kramer’s ostensible supporters in the center of the UAW universe (“this grizzled, battered town, this blue-collar, lunch-bucket town”). The on-field performances by Kramer, who had claimed the starting job after starting the season as the team’s third quarterback, and Sanders that day erased any internal concerns that might have troubled the Honolulu blue and silver faithful, however. They also silenced Del Rio:

Del Rio kept up the verbal barrage during the game, or part of it, anyway.

“I didn’t hear him make any more remarks after the first quarter, said Kramer.”

Detroit only led 7-3 at the end of that first quarter, but Dallas already had amassed half of the points it would score all day. Kramer threw three touchdown passes, Sanders finished the day with a forty-seven-yard TD run, and the Lions defense even got in on the scoring action, when Mel Jenkins intercepted starting Dallas QB Steve Beuerlein and ran it back for six. By at least this one measure– Super-Bowl era playoff wins– then, Kramer might be considered the Lions best-ever playcaller.

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This time around, the Lions quarterback again is the lead story. Matthew Stafford has struggled somewhat since injuring the middle finger on his throwing hand (pictured above, both pre- and post-injury). He claims he doesn’t rely much on that finger for gripping the ball, but the injury can’t help. Nor do recent injuries to other key contributors like DeAndre Levy, Marvin Jones, Ezekiel Ansah, Travis Swanson, and Riley Reiff, all of whom are likely to be game-time decisions. It also is not clear whether the team has a running back, although the emergence of Zach Zenner has caught the eye of at least one Seahawk defensive lineman.

While Detroit’s nine wins came on the back of a weak schedule, the Seahawks (10-5-1) also had some bad losses this year, dropping games to the Rams and Saints and going 0-1-1 against the disappointing Cardinals. They are coming off a win in Week 17, but they barely scraped by two-win San Francisco. This has not quite been the dominant Seahawks squad of recent seasons. Still, they best the Lions in all of the usual statistical categories and are 7-1 at home, where the game will be played tonight. (The Lions were 3-5 on the road this season.)

Any pieces of good news at this point are going to be small, but a notable one is the absence of Earl Thomas, one of Seattle’s best defenders, who will not play due to a leg injury. Seattle’s aggressive defensive tendencies also may help twist this piece of seemingly bad news into good news:

Lions fans are upset because Brad Allen, who calls a lot of penalties and officiated two Detroit losses and no wins, will be refereeing this game. Caldwell isn’t worried about the NFL assigning Allen to this game, though, and neither am I, because I think, in general, playoff games are officiated differently; Allen will have a completely different crew under his supervision; and, despite Seattle’s 2-1 record in Allen games, Seattle’s defensive strategy shouldn’t mesh well with a referee who throws a lot of flags. Their “efficient-breach” approach allows them to be aggressive, because they know that, even if their defenders commit pass interference or defensive holding on most every play, the officials won’t flag it every time. It therefore might not be a bad thing if Allen and his crew called more penalties in this game, so long as they do so fairly.

Another matchup to watch will be the Detroit defensive line against the Seattle offensive line, the latter being the only real Seahawk weakness. In a disappointing year from Ansah, the Lions haven’t made waves in the pass-rush department, but a breakout day from the fourth-year defensive end could be a difference-maker today.

It’s going to be a long and loud afternoon in Seattle, where a wintry mix has been in and out of the forecast. It will be tough sledding for these battered Lions. Here’s hoping they find a new gear and, once again, give their fans a reason to celebrate in January.

Stafford at the century mark, in context

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The 2016 Detroit Lions are doing kind of okay! Week Seven is in the books, and they’re 4-3, including a win over the probably good Eagles. In a week of very bad professional football, the Lions’ game-winning drive provided a rare highlight on Sunday. I insist you enjoy it again:

Because the NFL media corps is an insatiable monster, Sunday and Monday found everyone except Skip Bayless launching the Matthew Stafford MVP campaign:

Sunday was Stafford’s 100th NFL game, leading one writer to tabulate a long thread of historical statistical notes, the catchiest of which is the list of quarterbacks’ passing yards through their first one-hundred career games:

  1. Stafford: 27,890
  2. Dan Marino: 27,064
  3. Kurt Warner: 26,097
  4. Peyton Manning: 26,008
  5. Aaron Rodgers: 25,616

Not unimpressive company. As with Carson Palmer’s headline-grabbing passing milestone last month, though, this accumulative distinction requires some context, Continue reading

Carson Palmer, NFL record books in context

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At thirty-six years old, Carson Palmer is the second-oldest quarterback to throw a pass in the 2016 NFL season. In last week’s game against Tampa Bay, the Cardinals signal-caller threw thirty-one passes, completing eighteen of them for 308 yards, bringing his career total to 40,615.

Schrags is right: here’s Palmer right up there on the all-time list, ahead of both Unitas and Montana.

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It’s tough to write successful biographies while the subject still is alive, and it’s tough to evaluate the legacies of athletes while they still are playing, but you can be forgiven if you think Palmer might not quite belong in the company of Montana and Unitas.

The NFL has changed a lot since Montana was leaving his championship mark on the sport, and it’s changed even more since Unitas made waves simply by wearing hightops in a game. In short, the 40,000 passing yards threshold isn’t what it used to be, and the modern game is so different from prior eras that comments like Schrager’s, above, say more about those broad, sport-wide changes than they do about any individual achievements. Any longer, it simply isn’t helpful to our understanding of professional football and its players’ achievements to compare, for example, quarterback career passing yard totals.

A better way to understand how Palmer’s career achievement stacks up against those of Montana and Unitas is to contextualize it so we can better appreciate what it means for Palmer to have thrown for more than 40,000 yards in his NFL environment as compared to what it meant for Montana and Unitas to throw for over 40,000 yards in their NFL environments. Continue reading

Calvin Johnson is only 3/4 done

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All available signs indicate that Calvin Johnson’s NFL career is over. He’s borne a heavy burden for the Detroit Lions for nine seasons, during which he has performed at historically great levels, although injuries have limited his (still above-average) production in recent seasons. Nevertheless, outside of Johnson’s reportedly expressed desire to walk away from the game, there is nothing to suggest that, if he decided to continue his career, he would not continue to play at a very high level.

In fact, FiveThirtyEight’s projections show that if Johnson, who has compiled 11,619 receiving yards, stayed in the game, he could pull down an additional 4,355:

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That would account for twenty-seven-percent of his projected total receiving yards, and if Johnson were to reach that projected total of 15,974 yards, he would finish as the number two all-time receiver, just ahead of Terrell Owens’ 15,934, though still well behind Jerry Rice’s absurd 22,895. (So long as we’re projecting, it’s worth noting, as the article does, that Larry Fitzgerald (17,323) and Brandon Marshall (16,323) both project to finish ahead of Johnson’s projected mark.)

These projections, like many sports projections, are based in significant part on the performance arcs of past players. This is a reasonable methodological approach, and it’s probably the best and most widely used for these purposes. It has a few blind spots that are worth keeping in mind, however. One of those is the health of the individual player. There is no doubt that today’s players take their health and well-being more seriously and with a broader perspective than those of previous generations, including Rice’s. (There always will be exceptions, of course.) The backward-looking orientation of these projections mean that they will miss both new (or effectively hidden) injuries to the specific player, as well as new general trends regarding health and wellness, both of which could limit Johnson’s future production. So too, of course, could his desire to stop playing entirely. Also not directly included are rule changes and general changes in strategy, and here, those– rules that favor passing offense and a strategic shift to emphasize passing in offensive schemes– actually could push Johnson’s actual future output above his projected total.

Still, Johnson is thirty years old, he’s been banged up in each of his last few seasons, and his team’s present trajectory fairly is categorized as stagnant. As the FiveThirtyEight article reasonably concluded, “if Johnson ultimately decides to leave, good for him. If he ultimately decides to stay, good for football.” For fans, sports always will, in relatively equal parts, be about what was and what could be, and, as fun and important as imagining and projecting the sports future is, it’s just as important to realize what we have and have had play out before our eyes. Luckily for us, Johnson made the latter very easy and very enjoyable.