Topic: Sports & EntertainmentSociety

Cleveland Cavaliers general manager Jim Paxson and owner Gordon Gund
(July 2004)

One of the persistent myths propagated by ethics consultants (What’s that? Unethical ethics consultants? Ah, another tale for another day…) is that ethical conduct is always “good business.” There are two problems with this statement. The first is that it uses non-ethical considerations (higher profits, business success) as the argument for doing the right thing, thereby implying that ethical conduct might not be worth the trouble if one didn’t benefit from it monetarily. The second problem with the statement is, sadly, that it isn’t true a fair proportion of the time. This is especially the case in certain businesses that have devolved into unethical snake pits where ethical conduct is so rare that their occupants can’t recognize it any more. It is as if a long extinct species, like a moa or an aardwolf, suddenly walked into the conference room. “What the heck is that?”

It is the misfortune of this month’s Ethics Heroes, Gordon Gund and Jim Paxson, that they ply their trades in one of these businesses. Thus they have become the Ethics Scoreboard’s first tragic heroes in the Shakespearian tradition. Their fatal flaw is that they attempted to use ethical values in a professional culture that no longer values them. Theirs is a business in which, for example, an organization can sign an accused rapist to a mega-million dollar contract and nobody sees anything odd about it, much less “wrong.”

Yes, we are speaking of the National Basketball Association.

Carlos Boozer is a budding young super-star, a forward that most NBA general managers would sell their first born child to acquire. (Metaphorically, of course. As far as we know, no current NBA general manager has actually done this to acquire a star…yet.) Boozer and his agent were in the midst of negotiating a long-term contract with his employers, the Cleveland Cavaliers, who were being represented by Mr. Gund, the team’s owner, and Mr. Paxson, its general manager. There was an annoying feature of the talks from Boozer’s point of view: the Cavs had an option to extend his contract for one more year at the measly annual rate of a $695,000. Boozer argued, no doubt tearfully, that enforcing such a clearly unfair contract provision (albeit one that he had agreed to by signing on the dotted line) was mean and unfair, and certainly not recommended procedure if the team wanted to prevail in the furious bidding war for his services that was on the horizon.

So Boozer and his agent suggested the following alternative. If the Cavaliers would agree not to exercise the $695,000 option provision as a gesture of good will, the player would promise to sign a six year contract for “just” forty million dollars…the most Cleveland was able to pay under the league’s salary cap provisions. Boozer’s words, according to witnesses, were these: “If you respect me by not picking up the option, I’ll show trust and loyalty to you by signing with you.”

Touched and inspired, the team owner and general manager conferred and agreed. The next day, they informed the league office that they would not be exercising the option in Boozer’s current contract, officially making him a free agent. They also sent Boozer’s agent a letter to that effect.

Whereupon Boozer signed a 6 year, $68,000,000 contract to play forward for the Utah Jazz.

The player’s subsequent statements suggest that he feels that his actions were entirely justified, and he has enlisted several time tested rationalizations in his own defense, with some generous spinning thrown in for good measure. He didn’t exactly promise to sign with the team, he says. Besides, everybody knows he is worth a lot more than $695,000, so the Cavaliers, by exercising their contractual rights, would really have been cheating him.

Almost as revolting as Boozer’s actions, which, he may be surprised to learn, represent an extraordinarily lofty level of dishonesty and betrayal, has been the willingness of others to excuse them. “I called and congratulated him,” guard Jeff McInnis, a Cav team mate, told the Akron Beacon-Journal. “He made the best deal for his family.” This makes it sound as if Boozer was a modern day Jean Valjean, stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving kids. He lied, cheated and misrepresented himself to those who trusted him, and the fact that some of the extra millions that his venal duplicity obtained may find its way into his children’s trust funds in no way makes his conduct any more defensible. McInnis’s line is something of a mantra in professional sports these days, as every naked betrayal of honor and trust is explained as “doing what you have to do for your family.” Let’s make a new rule: once a player’s annual salary tops seven figures, this argument is banned, except as a joke. And it’s not even a very good joke.

Then there is the touching story of Larry Miller, the Utah Jazz owner who snatched Boozer away, knowing full well at the time that his new superstar was pulling off a flagrant double-cross. “I don’t want to sound corny, but yeah, I do feel his pain,” Miller was quoted as saying of Gund, as he noted that the whole situation “bothers” him because the Cavs owner is his “friend.”  “Gordon is a real gentleman. He’s good for the league, a good businessman, and I do feel bad for him,” Miller said. “It taints this somewhat. That’ll probably go away . . . but I hate seeing that side of sports, arguments about contracts and such.”

His comments were immediately entered into the annals of the Crocodile Tears Hall of Fame. What a pal, that Larry Miller! He knows that his “friend” has been bamboozled in a maneuver that would have him checking the Yellow Pages under “hit men,” yet he has no qualms about making sure that Boozer extracts every last benefit from his unethical stratagem, because it benefits his team as well. Well, check that…he does have qualms, little teeny, tiny qualms. He just “hates” this sort of thing. He just doesn’t hate it enough to refuse to participate in it.

Most interesting of all, though, is Boozer’s agent, Rob Pelinka. After the firestorm erupted in the wake of Boozer’s Cleveland exit, Pelinka decided that it was best that he resign as Boozer’s representative. Was he resigning in protest? Was he resigning in prudence, so that he wouldn’t be in close proximity to Boozer if an unhinged Cleveland fan attempted a drive by? No one knows. But we do know that he kept his significant share of the 68 mil. And there is a very strong likelihood that his fingerprints were all over Boozer’s flim-flammery.

Boozer, of course, feels no shame, or even tiny qualms, about what he did. “This is the Cavs’ mistake,” he was quoted as saying. He’s sure right about that: they trusted him, the fools. Of course, Boozer has made it highly unlikely that any NBA team will make a similar mistake…trusting a player, appealing to loyalty, relying on a promise or statements of good faith. He has managed to move his sport even deeper into an amoral jungle than it already was, but hey, it was all for his family! Meanwhile, his former employers, Gund and Paxson, are in the unique position of looking like Ethics Heroes and dunces for the same action. But for attempting to raise the abysmal ethical climate in the NBA, and attempting to bargain with a player and his agent using fairness, respect, and dignity, they are heroes to us. Just don’t pretend that “good ethics is good business” in the slime pit that is the National Basketball Association.

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