Sports Law: Disability Law for Professional Athletes
This is not legal advice and I am not licensed to practice law in any jurisdiction.
Should you need legal advice, contact an attorney licensed to practice in your jurisdiction.
This Week’s Topics:
Usually, when people think of athletes with disabilities they think of the Special Olympics, Paralympics or maybe disgraced sprinter Oscar Pistorius. However, the two athletes we discussed in class were NBA draft picks, one in 1986 and one in 2012. The two players are Roy Tarpley and Royce White.
Unless Tarpley decides to go into coaching, and someone decides they want to take a chance on him, his NBA story is over, so we might as well start with him. Tarpley was part of an infamous 1986 draft class, which saw Len Bias die due to cocaine overdose before ever taking a shot. Chris Washburn and William Bedford from that draft class also had careers derailed by drug use.
Initially, Tarpley seemed like a great seventh-overall pick. He was on the all-rookie first team in 1987 and Sixth Man of the Year in 1988. Then, it all went south. Tarpley was arrested for D.W.I. and then arrested again for D.W.I. He violated the NBA’s drug use policy and third time and then was banned from the league. However, in 1994 he was allowed to return to the league, but banned permanently in 1995 for more alcohol use.
Unfortunately for the NBA, the Tarpley story does not end there. In 2004, Tarpley sued the NBA for violating the A.D.A. You might be thinking, why would the A.D.A. protect drunk drivers? Well, it doesn’t. The A.D.A. classifies alcoholism and drug abuse as disabilities and while using drugs and alcohol is cause for dismissal, if someone is clean you cannot refuse them a job simply because of their past mistakes.
Interestingly, both Tarpley and White played in the Big 10 (aka B1G). Now, I’m not suggesting that the Big 10 do a better character assessment of its players or even necessarily that either of these guys has character issues. The A.D.A. treats alcoholism as a disability for a reason. Guys like Latrell Sprewell came out of the S.E.C., and no one is suggesting he has chronic coach-chocking-syndrome. There’s not really a point. It’s just an observation. An ‘n’ of two is hardly going to be statistical under any circumstance.
Anyway, White left the Big 10 for the Big 12 and then the Big 12 for the Houston Rockets. Royce White is now a player for the 76ers, you know, assuming he ever plays. A local Philadelphia CBS affiliated reported earlier this month that White did not make the trip to Europe with the team. White has general anxiety disorder (G.A.D.), which manifests itself when he flies.
A lot of people don’t like flying. I don’t like flying. But, I like it better than being in a car for hours and hours. White, on the other hand, apparently has trouble breathing and experiences other symptoms associated with G.A.D. Now, I’m a little perplexed why they can’t just knock him out B.A. Baracus-style, but apparently the side effects of anesthesia are pretty intense and these days everyone is aware of the long-term effects of concussions.
White’s situation is very different legally from Tarpley’s situation. White has not been penalized, at least not officially, by the NBA. White feels his demotion to the D-League was a veiled punishment, but rookies going to the D-League is pretty common. White would need to find some smoking gun evidence in discovery in order for a case to go anywhere. White and the 76ers may have a better relationship. Being on the east coast means that White will have more games where he can drive. Time will tell.
Ultimately though, if the league does decide to part ways with White, there may be nothing White can do. The A.D.A. requires reasonable accommodations. Changing the schedule to allow White to drive to each game hardly seems reasonable. NHL teams, college tournaments and a myriad of other events share NBA stadia. Additionally, a less hectic travel schedule would be unfair to the other teams in the league, especially if the 76ers push for a playoff spot.
Everyone knows about international football. The UEFA Champions League is followed around the world. However, European and Chinese basketball are also huge and Japanese and Latin baseball are huge. Given that spread, I don’t have time to cover disability law in the important leagues of the world, unless someone wants to leave a comment saying they want further coverage. The UN does have some information on disability legislation.
I do briefly want to mention Canadian disability law though, since the NBA, NHL, MLB and MLS all have Canadian teams. Much like the US, Canada is made up of subdivisions. All 10 provinces and 3 territories have their own disability administration (likewise, the National Disability Rights Network has information for the US States). However, only Ontario appears to have passed specific legislation on the topic.
If our weekly articles aren’t enough for you, you can follow my professor on Twitter, on SI.com or NBA TV (although the videos on the site seem to have dried up in late 2011).