Addressing the Issue of Tampering
LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh officially became Miami Heat teammates last week, turning a Pat Riley vision nearly three years in the making into glorious reality and simultaneously unleashing a torrent of suspicion: Was it planned all along? If so, was it tampering? Illegal?
The answer, as far as N.B.A. officials are concerned, is an emphatic no.
Tampering is when a player or team, directly or indirectly entices, induces or persuades anybody (player, general manager, etc.) who is under contract to another team to negotiate for their services.
Although each player was set to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of last season, each was technically still under contract to his existing team through June 30.
Since James’ announcement on July 8, which followed those of Wade and Bosh the day before, rival teams and frustrated fans have wondered whether the outcome was predetermined. The three players had spoken openly of convening a “free-agent summit” to discuss their plans, well before free agency formally opened. They reportedly conferred with each other throughout the process.
Suspicions became more concrete on Saturday, when The Cleveland Plain Dealer published a detailed narrative that traced the alliance back to 2006, when James, Wade and Bosh became teammates for USA Basketball. The article, based mostly on anonymous sources, referred to “a complex master plan that was the trio’s desire for much of the past four years.”
The issue of tampering was discussed at the N.B.A. owners meeting in Las Vegas on Monday.
“What we told the owners was that the three players are totally, as our system has evolved, within their rights to talk to each other,” Commissioner David Stern said after the meeting.
Players on different teams who discuss the idea of someday playing together “is not tampering or collusion that is prohibited,” Stern said.
Stern maintains that there is a considerable difference between player-to-player contact — even before free agency officially began July 1 — and contact between team officials with players under contract or their representatives. The league’s anti-tampering rules were conceived largely with teams and their employees in mind as opposed to players.
He told reporters that he would not punish any players who supposedly participated in any summit meetings, and that players are not subject to the same strict rules as teams when it comes to tampering – except in extreme cases, when it can be proven that a player was operating as a direct extension of team management.
The N.B.A. takes tampering very seriously and may impose stiff penalties if it is discovered. In the event of tampering, N.B.A. rules provide the Commissioner wide-ranging powers to be issued in his sole discretion. However, as he has expressed, the range of potential penalties differs substantially for team officials and players.
If a player is found to have tampered with another team’s player, coach, trainer, general manager or other employee still under contract, the Commissioner has the power to suspend such player for a definite or indefinite period and/or impose a fine of up to $50,000 upon such player.
If instead a team official is found to have violated the anti-tampering rules, the Commissioner has the power to suspend such person for a definite or indefinite period, prohibit the offending team from hiring the person being tampered with, require the offending team to forfeit draft picks, and/or impose a fine on the individual and/or the offending team of up to $5 million.
While Stern is not bound by rules of absolute certainty when doling out sanctions for tampering, establishing a baseline for determining that Wade may have been acting as an agent for the Heat organization would appear rather far-fetched. Further, the league’s practice when it comes to tampering allegations has been to wait until the team who may have been tampered with lodges a complaint before investigating. No team filed a tampering complaint against the Heat or any of its players, nor does the league expect one.
Although the league could investigate without a formal complaint, Stern said, “There’s nothing here at this time that is causing us to lodge an investigation.” He dismissed news reports that implied a long-term conspiracy as a “variety of gossip, bound together with innuendo, infused by hearsay.”