A Suit Over a Showman

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A Suit Over a Showman

Postby rlee » Sat Sep 08, 2012 9:53 pm

A Suit Over a Showman

LaMarvon Jackson was about as anonymous a college basketball player as he could be. Hailing from Alabama, he averaged about eight minutes and one point a game in two seasons for the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. A 6-foot-5 forward, he did not march on stage at the N.B.A. draft, and he may never play in Madison Square Garden.

But Jackson does have one notable skill: the ability to perform high-flying acrobatic dunks. The talent helped him land a job in 2010 with the Harlem Ambassadors, a show basketball team that tours the country playing exhibition games in small arenas. Few of Jackson’s dunks have been televised, but his exploits above the rim caught the eye of the Harlem Wizards, a rival show team that signed him to play for them this season.

Jackson’s jump to the Wizards, though, has landed him in the center of a peculiar tampering dispute. Late last year, the Ambassadors sued the Wizards, claiming that they had induced Jackson to break his contract and jump ship. The Ambassadors are seeking $73,620 in general contract and punitive damages.

Dale Moss, the president of the Ambassadors, said that if the two teams were in a league, “the issue is so clear and so simple that a wise commissioner would resolve this in minutes.” The Ambassadors and the Wizards, however, are independent teams not governed by a collective bargaining agreement, which means their dispute is akin to one company accusing a competitor of stealing a top executive.

Modern sports history is littered with player disputes. For decades, owners, commissioners and organizers, from baseball to boxing to basketball, have sued to prevent foes from grabbing stars away. The tussle over Jackson, however, involves an exhibition basketball team — known for twirling red-white-and-blue balls; throwing buckets of confetti; and sinking halfcourt shots — accusing another exhibition team of skulduggery.

“You have an obscure college basketball player becoming a coveted employee because of his jumping ability,” said Michael McCann, the director of the Sports Law Institute at the Vermont Law School. “This shows that even with something that’s inherently fun, there are still legal disputes between companies offering similar products.”

In legal language, the Ambassadors have accused the Wizards of tortious interference, which on a basketball court would sound like a nasty blocking foul. In a court of law, it is essentially when one company induces an employee of another company to break his or her contract.

It is often difficult to win a suit based on allegations of tortious interference because the courts over time have decided that workers should have the right to sell their services to whomever they please. Some plaintiffs also must show that the employee is difficult to replace, a high bar because few workers have skills so extraordinary that someone else cannot do the same job.

This has led to absurd confrontations. In Central New York Basketball Inc. v. Barnett, Dick Barnett, playing for the Syracuse Nationals of the N.B.A., was courted by the Cleveland Pipers, an upstart American Basketball League team that was owned by George Steinbrenner. In his defense, Barnett was asked whether he had an exceptional or unique skill and ability as a basketball player. No, he said. Do you think you are as good as Oscar Robertson? No, he repeated.

“It’s very contrary to conventional law when the court is going to refrain a player from pursuing their livelihood,” said David L. Gregory, the executive director of the Center for Labor and Employment Law at St. John’s University School of Law. “Basketball players are a long way away from Pavarotti.”

Moss, the president of the Ambassadors, who are based in Fort Collins, Colo., said his players sign one-year contracts with a team option for a second year. This allows the Ambassadors to determine which players can handle the tough travel schedule and become convincing entertainers. “If we find and develop a performer, you don’t really have the ability to market them as a rookie, so the second year is the payoff year,” Moss said.

The Wizards disagree. They have asked that the case be thrown out because they claim that Illinois, where the complaint was filed, is an inappropriate venue. Kenneth H. Levinson, a lawyer for the Wizards, added that the Ambassadors’ case “has no merit whatsoever” and that “the allegations are untrue.”

A hearing on the matter is scheduled for August.

Todd Davis, the president of the Wizards, added that Jackson’s contract with the Ambassadors was so one-sided that “it was close to indentured servitude.” Jackson, he said, earned just $60 a game with the Ambassadors and was an independent contractor and thus ineligible for workers’ compensation. Most contracts have mutual options for the second year, not team-only options, he said.

“It was the first time I looked at one of their contracts, and I was really shocked,” Davis said. “We wanted him as a player, and morally there was no way I was not going to try to sign him.”

Moss said players were paid for each game but also received a per diem, payments for presentations to schools and compensation for other duties, like doing the team’s laundry.

Jackson, though, said his Ambassadors’ paycheck barely covered his expenses. The Wizards pay him about twice as much, and the performances and traveling are less arduous, he said.

The Ambassadors deal “wasn’t a great contract, but I love to play basketball and working with kids, so I signed it,” said Jackson, who said he never signed anything committing him to return to the Ambassadors. “I really didn’t want to continue there — because if I got hurt there, there was no way for me, with the amount I was being paid, to cover any kind of medical bills.”

The Ambassadors, the Wizards and their more famous cousins, the Globetrotters, often look for college basketball players who have not been drafted by the N.B.A. but still have considerable skill. Given how many nights they spend on the road and in front of children, players also must be adaptable, personable and not run afoul of the law.

Moss created the Ambassadors in 1998 and now has two squads of seven or eight performers who tour almost nonstop from September to May, visiting towns like Alliance, Neb., and Jessup, Ga. Interest is highest in March, thanks to the N.C.A.A. basketball tournament. But unlike the Globetrotters, who frequently use the Washington Generals as their foil, the Ambassadors play against local teams that may not always get their jokes.

On a tip, Moss found Jackson playing recreational ball in Alabama two summers ago and signed him to a rookie deal. The team says it pays players on tour up to $3,000 a month, which includes travel, lodging and most meal expenses. Jackson attended a two-week boot camp where the woman who coaches the team, Lade Majic Prophete — the Meadowlark Lemon of the Ambassadors — taught him new moves on the court and prepared him for the woes of the roads, which include games five or six days a week.

The first few months “make a man or a child out of you,” Prophete said. “LaMarvon was a dunker for us, a highflier who had some raw talent, and my job was to develop the talent. It takes a lot of work and hours.”

According to the complaint, an agent for the Wizards spoke to Jackson about switching teams in April 2011, which prompted Moss to call the president of the Wizards, Todd Davis, to tell him the Ambassadors planned to pick up Jackson’s option.

When the season ended, Moss said, he traveled to Blanding, Utah, to tell Jackson that the Ambassadors were exercising their option and, according to the complaint, Jackson acknowledged that the Ambassadors had picked up the option. Moss said he exchanged text messages with Jackson in the summer, but he declined to share them, citing the pending case.

When the Ambassadors’ training camp opened on Sept. 1, Jackson was absent. He did not respond to phone calls from Moss, according to the complaint, and eventually his picture was posted on the Wizards’ Web site.

“There’s a Wild West mentality of doing what you want and seeing where the chips fall,” Moss said, referring to the competitive nature of the show teams. “We’re both independent operators, so there’s no league umbrella to guide your business practices.”

Jackson continues to play for the Wizards, who celebrate their 50th anniversary this year. According to his Facebook page, he lives in New York (the Wizards’ headquarters are in Secaucus, N.J.) and he is engaged to be married. On a series of instructional videos made by the Wizards, Jackson’s nickname is Mr. 540, a reference to his ability to spin one and a half times around, or 540 degrees, when dunking.

Though the Ambassadors are seeking damages from the Wizards, they did not ask the court to stop Jackson from playing for the Wizards, though other owners and leagues have tried with varying success to prevent athletes from playing for teams to which they tried to jump. Some of the most notable examples stemmed from competition between leagues. In 1901, for instance, the Philadelphia Phillies of the National League successfully sued to stop Napoleon Lajoie from playing for their crosstown American League rivals, the Athletics.

The injunction was enforceable only in Pennsylvania, so the Athletics traded Lajoie to the Cleveland Bronchos, with whom he played many fruitful seasons. In 1902, though, Lajoie did not play against the Athletics in Philadelphia and instead stayed in Atlantic City to avoid the risk of ending up in court. The next year, the problem went away because the two competing leagues formed the major leagues.

A similar showdown occurred when the San Francisco Warriors of the N.B.A. sued to stop the productive scorer Rick Barry from joining the Oakland Oaks of the A.B.A. Barry sat out the 1967-68 season. In both cases, the courts enjoined players from playing for another team, but they did not force the players to go back to their original teams.

“That’s involuntary servitude, and then you’d have to police it,” said Matthew J. Mitten, a professor of law and the director of the National Sports Law Institute at Marquette University. “But an injunction is a strong remedy.”

The Ambassadors and the Wizards have gone to court before.

In 2006, the Ambassadors filed a complaint with the Fair Trade Commission alleging that the Globetrotters blocked free trade because their contracts called for arena operators to block other show basketball teams from performing in the same venue for many weeks before and after the Globetrotters appeared. The F.T.C. did not take up the complaint.

In 1996, the Wizards sued to stop the N.B.A.’s Washington Bullets from renaming themselves the Wizards. That, too, failed.

In the fight between the Wizards and the Ambassadors, at least one team is going to come out a winner.
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