Should MLB contracts be more easily voided?

Winslow Townson

Now that the first domino (Ryan Braun) has fallen in the Anthony Bosch PED scandal there are certainly more suspensions coming. Should contracts be voided as a result?

Now that Major League Baseball has, officially, handed out their first major punishment of the season for the players involved in the Anthony Bosch scandal, we are left to wonder: who’s next and are the punishments being doled out going to be enough to deter future would-be offenders? Not only that, but should organizations be allowed to void contracts that weren’t negotiated in good faith by the players and their agents?

Milwaukee Brewers outfielder and perennial MVP candidate Ryan Braun was the first to have said punishment handed out in the form of a 65-game suspension without pay. As a result of this punishment, which is less than the rumored 100-game suspension, he will lose $3.4 million in salary this season and his reputation is now forever tarnished.

One question concerning Braun and the others likely to receive a suspension remains: Is the tarnished reputation of players that were once revered as heroes in the public eye enough to curtail the use of performance enhancers at all levels in baseball?

The reason I ask is because Braun may lose out on that $3.4 million the remainder of this season but still has well over $100 million left on his existing contract. Melky Cabrera was suspended 50 games in the middle of August last season while playing for the San Francisco Giants, and still managed to get a two-year contract worth $16 million from the Toronto Blue Jays.

Is it enough to simply not pay them throughout the duration of their suspension along with the tarnished reputation or should MLB and organizations begin to make it a point to put language in contracts stating they can be voided if a player fails a drug test and is suspended as a result?

After all, those contracts that were negotiated between the players and their agents with the organizations were done in good faith that they would not do anything that could be seen as harmful to the organization or would prevent them from living up to the contract in question. A player who signs a $100 million dollar contract via free agency but "earned" that contract due to use of performance enhancing drugs wasn’t exactly negotiating in good faith, were they?

As it stands right now, there have been no reports of any contracts that the implicated or guilty signed with language relating to steroids. There is the generic language for "conduct detrimental to the team" and so-on and so-forth but even then that has never been interpreted, successfully, in a manner that has allowed a team to void the contract.

More specifically, in order to be able to successfully void any player contract, there has to be language in the contract that would allow it. Much of it has to do with the guarantee language in the contract itself.

When teams have tried to void contracts in the past, they have relied on paragraph 7(b)1 of the uniform player's contract, which states that a contract can be voided if a player "shall fail, refuse, or neglect to conform his personal conduct to the standards of good citizenship and good sportsmanship or keep himself in first-class physical condition.''

Paragraph 3 (a), furthermore, states that "The player agrees to perform his services hereunder diligently and faithfully, to keep himself in first-class physical condition and to obey the club's training rules, and pledges himself to the American public and to the club to conform to high standards of personal conduct, fair play and good sportsmanship.''

While the contract language itself seems to be one of those catch-alls, it hasn’t exactly been useful for the organizations that have tried to void contracts previously. Naturally, the Players Union would fight tooth and nail with everything they have to prevent such a dangerous precedent from being set.

Even when organizations have managed to void a player contract, it hasn’t proven to be beneficial to the team.

The Colorado Rockies attempted to void starting pitcher Denny Neagle’s contract in 2004 after he was cited on suspicion of soliciting a prostitute for oral sex. This wasn’t his first brush with the law, however, as he plead guilty to driving while impaired in 2003 which led to a minor traffic accident. The union immediately filed a grievance on Neagle’s behalf.

Ultimately, according to the Denver Post, a settlement was reached the following year as the Rockies were required to pay Neagle roughly $16 million of the $19.5 million owed to him per his contract. The team saved nearly $3.5 million, not including the costs and resources used to make the case they were within their right to void his contract and pay him nothing.

The Baltimore Orioles were another organization that attempted to completely void a player’s contract, using the "personal conduct" clause in the contract, that same year in 2004. Former Orioles starting pitcher Sidney Ponson was released by the Orioles and the organization refused to pay him the remaining money on his contract, nearly $10.1 million, because they stated he violated a morals clause in his contract.

What led to the organization taking that route was the fact that Ponson had been arrested on Christmas Day 2004 when he was charged with assaulting an Aruban judge following an incident in which there were complaints with how he was handling his power boat. He spent 11 days in jail before finally reaching a settlement that included paying restitution, community service, and making contributions to local charities there on the island.

Not even a month later, in January 2005, he was charged with driving under the influence in Broward County, Florida and then managed to earn himself another drunken driving arrest later that year in August in downtown Baltimore.

When it was all said and done, a settlement was reached between Ponson, the MLBPA, and the Orioles organization that ended up paying Ponson the majority of the $10.1 million owed to him according to a report from FoxSports.com.

As you can see, it is beyond difficult and nearly impossible to successfully void a player’s contract based on any sort of conduct detrimental to the team or trying to invoke some variation of the morals clause. Previous contracts that have been voided successfully, where the termination of said contract benefited the organization more than the player, would be due to paragraph 5(b), which is what the Atlanta Braves and New York Yankees were able to do with Ron Gant and Aaron Boone way back when.

5. (b) The Player and the Club recognize and agree that the Player’s participation in certain other sports may impair or destroy his ability and skill as a baseball player. Accordingly, the Player agrees that he will not engage in professional boxing or wrestling; and that, except with the written consent of the Club, he will not engage in skiing, auto racing, motorcycle racing, sky diving, or in any game or exhibition of football, soccer, professional league basketball, ice hockey or other sport involving a substantial risk of personal injury.

So if a player violates this section of their contract, where they injure themselves participating in activities that are deemed risky, it is okay to void the contract but not when there are certain behaviors that reflect poorly on the game and the organization(s) involved from a moral and common decency stance?

Should the moral clause of all player contracts start to include more specific language in them?

After all, if an organization is able to void a player contract based on some vague moral clause, it would certainly be a cause for concern for all players that organizations could simply void contracts based on some vague language to get out from under a bad contract that they agreed to in the first place.

We all know that spousal abuse or physical and mental abuse of any kind towards another individual, especially with the intent to cause harm, is bad and our society as a whole frowns upon such behavior. Same thing for violent criminal offenses, alcohol and drug abuse or driving while under the influence.

The point is these moral clauses should be better defined if organizations would like the option to remove players who become nuisances to the organization or their teammates. Without detailed language concerning specific behaviors that would be, or should be, cause for voiding a contract outright, it will never happen because it leaves open the possibility that organizations across the sport could abuse the "morals clause" to save themselves some money.

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