MLB fired impartial arbitrator,
“Off with their heads!”
The Queen of Hearts from the book
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll
Shyam Das should have seen it coming. His position as MLB’s independent arbitrator was in jeopardy from the moment he overturned the drug suspension of Ryan Braun. And true to form, less than three months after Das ruled against the league, MLB exercised its right to terminate him after 13 years of service.
Das’ tenure as MLB’s independent arbitrator was longer than any of his 12 predecessors. Several arbitrators have quit under pressure and others, like Das, have been fired by MLB for rulings that have raised the ire of management. Peter Seitz was the first recipient of MLB’s wrath after his landmark decision in the Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally cases.
For almost a century prior to the Seitz decision, teams included the so-called reserve clause in player contracts that allowed them to renew expiring contracts for a period of one year. Because teams refused to allow players to play without signing a new contract, the reserve clause had the effect of binding a player to one team during their entire career, thereby eliminating competition for the players’ services and keeping salaries low.
Messersmith and McNally refused to sign contracts for the 1975 season and thereafter claimed to be free agents. MLB disagreed and the dispute was submitted to Seitz for a decision. Seitz implored the parties to settle the dispute, but when they refused, he ruled in favor of the players. MLB promptly fired Seitz and appealed his decision to the courts, where they fared no better.
Two other arbitrators were unilaterally dismissed for ruling against the teams in the infamous collusion cases. First Tom Roberts – once - then George Nicolau – twice - found that the owners colluded against free agents during the three off seasons between 1985 and 1987. The teams eventually agreed to a settlement of $280 million, plus interest, but not before summarily firing both arbitrators.
The list of arbitrators removed by MLB doesn’t end there. Owners also fired Richard Bloch, who ruled against them in cases involving drug suspensions of Kansas City Royals players in the 1980’s, and Raymond Goetz who supported pitcher Ferguson Jenkins’ appeal of his 1980 drug suspension.
It should be pointed out that it is common practice in collective bargaining agreements to give either side the right to fire independent arbitrators. However, that doesn’t make it ethical to fire someone just because you don’t agree with their decision. Of course, MLB never gives that as the reason for terminating an arbitrator. After notifying Das that he was being removed, Rob Manfred, MLB’s executive vice president for labor relations, said, “Shyam served for 13 years. That’s a very long time. He’s a very high-quality arbitrator. We made a decision to exercise our contractual right to make a change. There’s nothing more to that.” Those comments beg the question: If Das is such a “high-quality” arbitrator, why terminate him?
Manfred’s comments sound eerily similar to a statement made in 1995 by John Westoff, then a lawyer with MLB’s Player Relations Committee. After notifying Nicolau that his nine-year term as the independent arbitrator was over, Westoff said, “It was not a reaction to any specific decisions. We just felt it was time to move on.” Manfred, who was the owners’ lead labor negotiator in 1995, added, “We were at the point in our relationship where we thought it was good to have someone with a fresh eye.” Translation: Nicolau ruled against us once too often.
The statements by Westoff and Manfred were mild – and almost certainly inaccurate – compared to Manfred’s comments immediately after Das’ decision in the Braun case. Das ruled that the collector violated drug policy protocol by storing Braun’s specimen in his home for 48 hours when he should have sent it to the lab on the day it was collected. Manfred said that while MLB agreed with the process of allowing a neutral third party to review disputes, “MLB vehemently disagrees with the decision rendered…by arbitrator Shyam Das.”
MLB’s recourse? The same as it has been throughout the 40-plus years an independent arbitrator has been used: Termination of the arbitrator, a less violent but equally effective variation of the Queen of Hearts’ famous cry.
Jordan Kobritz is a staff member of the Business of Sports Network. He is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner. He is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Eastern New Mexico University and teaches the Business of Sports at the University of Wyoming. He looks forward to your comments and can be contracted, here.
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