Contract Roulette: Why Some NBA Players Are Trapped In China
The Sports Blawg with the Fordham Sports Law Forum
This past summer, an extended work stoppage threatened to wipe out the entire 2012 NBA season. Not wanting to risk missing a year’s worth of paychecks, some NBA players began to warm up to the idea of playing basketball overseas. Naturally, NBA league officials did not support this notion for fear that its star players would get locked into international contracts and not be allowed to return to the NBA if there was indeed a 2012 NBA season.
The International Basketball Federation, FIBA, governs the transfer of players between basketball associations. The FIBA 2010 International Regulations dictate that a player can never be under contract with more than one basketball association. Under FIBA rules, the only way a player under contract can move to another league is if his current league grants the new league a “letter of clearance” on behalf of the player. With this in mind, in late July, FIBA announced that it would clear NBA players under contract to play in other leagues on the condition that any new agreements would automatically be rendered void upon the end of the NBA work stoppage. This ruling satisfied the NBA league officials as well as all NBA players under contract. But what about those NBA players that were technically free agents, not under contract with an NBA team?
FIBA was silent on that matter, allowing each international league to devise its own rules. The Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) decided not to allow its teams to sign any NBA players that were under NBA contracts. However, CBA teams were allowed to sign NBA free agents provided that these players committed to playing the entire CBA season regardless of whether the NBA work stoppage ended. On this point, the CBA made clear that under no circumstances would they grant a player’s “letter of clearance” until after the CBA season ended in March. Taking the CBA at its word, this plainly meant that any player who signed a CBA contract would not be allowed to return to the NBA until March.
Four high profile NBA free agents, Wilson Chandler, Kenyon Martin, J.R. Smith, and Aaron Brooks, decided to hedge their bets during the work stoppage and sign with CBA teams. This ultimately did not turn out to be a smart wager.
In December, the NBA work stoppage ended and an abbreviated 66-game 2012 NBA season was announced. Simultaneously, under FIBA’s July ruling, all players under NBA contracts were released of their international contracts and allowed to return to their respective teams in the United States. The same could not be said for the abovementioned players, who now found themselves in a very ugly situation.
Predictably, these players wanted to return to the NBA but the CBA stuck to its word, refusing to grant letters of clearance. Some players (like J.R. Smith pictured below) have gone to great lengths to try to force their way out of their deals, even going so far as to allegedly fake injuries to get out of playing games for their Chinese teams. Nevertheless, CBA officials prepared for this possibility as they negotiated each contract to give teams the latitude to fine and suspend players without pay.
Essentially this leaves only two options for Martin, Chandler, Smith, and Brooks. They can either play and get paid in China, and return to the NBA in March, or not play and not get paid, and return to the NBA in March.
Kenyon Martin has decided to take the latter route, having been sent away from his CBA team without pay, yet still technically under contract and still without a letter of clearance to play in the NBA. As Martin cannot participate at all with his NBA team until the conclusion of the CBA season, Martin’s decision to buy out his contract with CBA team Xinjiang is certainly “somewhat intriguing.” Hopefully, the other three players take notice of this and go with the former option. While they are not technically trapped in China, it would not be in their best economic interest to try and force their way out of town. Instead, they would be wise to make the best of a bad situation—play out the remainder of their CBA contracts, collect their paycheck, and return to an NBA team in March.
The Fordham Sports Law Forum is dedicated to bringing interesting issues in sports law to the Fordham legal community. Each week, in conjunction with the Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal, members of the Fordham Sports Law Forum write posts about current sports law issues and events.