From Hoboken, N.J. to Hokkaido and thousands of far-flung locales in between, there are few issues as contentious and complicated as player contracts in professional sports.
How a pro league strikes a proper balance between management’s plan to build a winning, profitable team and a player’s right to make a decent living is never an easy task.
And, really, it’s never a done deal. For better or for worse, agreements will be altered in ways that defy logic, promises will be broken and relationships will be damaged. That’s the nature of the beast.
Historically, sports leagues have always given greater control to owners. That doesn’t mean, however, that players will — or should — always agree with what management considers the “right way” to conduct business.
In the bj-league, for instance, there are growing voices of displeasure with how the sixth-year circuit handles player contracts, particularly in regard to player protection rules and free agency. And one-year contracts — the league’s maximum deal — don’t offer anyone long-term stability or job security.
The league has two contract types, known as A and B contracts. An A contract is good for a minimum of ¥3 million per 52-game season and requires a team to keep a player on its protection list. If a player opts to go abroad and play in a different league, he can remain protected for one year if he comes back to Japan to play.
On the other hand, a B contract is a non-guaranteed deal, meaning it isn’t protected a day after the contract expires. Of course, B contract players receive significantly lower salaries.
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In a recent phone interview with The Japan Times, bj-league spokesman Akihiro Ejima detailed the league’s free agency and player protection regulations.
He explained that a player can be kept protected for up to seven years. Also, a player can become a free agent after three years, but a player has to be on the active roster for 80 percent of a team’s games (translation: in uniform) for that time frame. If a player is on the active roster for 50 percent of a team’s games, it only counts as one-half season.
If a player is left unprotected when the season ends, the other clubs can make a contractual offer for the coming season. That contract offer, league regulations stipulate, must be at least 75 percent of the player’s previous season salary.
And if a team doesn’t make an offer of at least 75 percent of his previous salary for the upcoming season, its rights expire. But if an A contract player doesn’t sign a deal, he’s still not eligible to go to another team unless a team trades him or annuls the contract.
In other words, here’s the offer — take it or leave it.
The prevailing wisdom is that the player protection regulation was established to “prevent other teams from sliding in and taking a franchise player,” one player told me, citing All-Star big man Jeff Newton’s move from the Osaka Evessa after the team’s third title in 2008 to the Ryukyu Golden Kings as the perfect example.
Asked why the league has put the protection rule in place, Ejima responded by saying, “We (the league) apply the salary cap system and it is realistically difficult for any club to make a generous offer to a player it wants to obtain. But if it does happen, it certainly is not related to maintaining the power balance. So if a team doesn’t want to let a player go, it can retain him by offering him an A contract exclusively.
“For players, it makes it difficult for them to look into transferring to another team after only a year, but instead he can earn a right to become a free agent after three years, which we think is a short period,” added, Ejima, comparing the bj-league’s free agency model to Nippon Professional Baseball’s regulations (it generally takes up to nine seasons for a Japanese player to become a domestic free agent or 10 seasons for international free agency).
But here are the facts: Based on the system in place bj-league teams can constantly be in cost-cutting mode. And during a time when the economy is shaky, there are few people who would voluntarily embrace the idea of having a 50 percent reduction in pay in two years, in any industry.
Do some players demand a pay raise each year?
Do other players ask for at least the same salary for the next season?
Yes, they do.
When a player wins a championship or helps a team earn a playoff berth, garners All-Star accolades and other similar accomplishments, he probably doesn’t want to accept a pay cut.
Ejima cited both All-Star center Julius Ashby and two-time Best Five point guard Naoto Takushi as examples of players who have had contract “disputes” with their previous clubs.
Ashby left the Tokyo Apache and signed a deal with the Niigata Albirex BB. The Kyoto Hannaryz, meanwhile, cut ties with Takushi, and he is currently looking for a new team.
A club’s player protection rights, also called temporary holding rights, are designed to “maintain the power balance between the teams and fairness for assets based on the whole system, including the tryout, draft, free agency and salary cap,” Ejima said.
On paper, this looks reasonable, especially for a growing league. The reality, however, is that scores of players are getting raw deals under this dysfunctional system.
According to multiple sources, forwards Ray Schafer and Chris Schlatter were placed on the Shiga Lakestars’ protection list after last season ended in May, but neither player received “reasonable offers” from the team for the 2010-11 season.
So here’s the situation: They are prohibited from negotiating with the league’s other 15 teams unless they can somehow convince Lakestars management to drop them from the protected list.
(Shiga did not respond to an e-mail inquiry about Schafer and Schlatter. Though, to be fair, one would expect a small market team’s response would focus on its strict budget — strictly business — and keeping costs down.)
“This definitely seems to be completely against the spirit of the rule,” a league insider said, without needing to say that teams can make the lowest possible offer and refuse to negotiate in good faith.
“A player is protected because the team plans to sign him. But it appears that Shiga had no intention of signing either one, so why were they protected? To prevent other teams from signing them? To provide a backup (plan) in case they can’t find better or cheaper players?”
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High-scoring forward Josh Peppers, a fan favorite, appears to have had similar difficulties in Sendai between the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons.
(He eventually returned to the 89ers midway through last season, but before other interested teams — there were several — were able to negotiate with him.)
“I think the rules as they are now are horrible,” said a veteran observer with a keen understanding of the way the league operates. “Players like Bobby St. Preux (the 2008-09 All-Star Game MVP), who many teams wanted after his first year in Japan, are no longer playing here because of this rule. Had he been free to sign with any team he wanted, he probably would still be here playing in Japan, just not for Sendai.”
Others share that sentiment.
“I think it’s wrong and wasteful of talent that could otherwise be kept in the league,” a player told me.
This is especially evident when one tries to keep track of all the good players that have left the bj-league, a growing number each year.
“And now it seems that teams ‘protect’ players not because they want to sign them, but because they don’t want a rival team to sign them,” the source said.
So what’s the solution?
One longtime agent believes the bj-league needs to allow all players to become free agents after one year and then allow them to sign multiyear contracts. This system is broken, he insisted.
“If teams want to keep players, then the answer is simple: sign them to multiple-year contracts. The league is in its sixth season,” the source said. “It’s time to grow up. One-year contracts made sense in the first season or two, but less so now.
“Or teams should have a short window after the season, say one month after the championship game, to re-sign their import players. If they can’t sign them, the player is free to sign with any other team he wants.”
That would certainly give players more freedom in the process. But change comes slowly in Japan and owners aren’t necessarily interested in providing players with a more equitable system.
“Players and/or their agents should be complaining to the league and trying to get this rule changed,” the source said. “This is a rule that probably would not hold up in court, so merely raising the issue, or hinting at a lawsuit, might be enough to get the rule changed. An actual lawsuit would win easily in court, as courts almost always decide in favor of the right to work.
“Also, if I were an agent, I would just insist that a team sign a simple agreement that my client would be a free agent at the end of the season and free to sign with any other team in the bj-league. . .
“You often ask why certain players are signed or haven’t returned to the bj-league, and this rule is one of those reasons.”
In other words, this rule suffocates long-term development of teams and the league as a collective entity and destroys the chance for fans to develop enduring connections with dozens of players who are here today, gone tomorrow. And that’s bad for business.
Exhibit A: In the bj-league notebook on Aug. 27, I cited 12 foreign player signings in a span of several days, including nine newcomers —a snapshot of the league’s problem. Indeed, a 75 percent ratio of new foreign players is too high and underscores the disgust shared by many who don’t work at the league office.
“You cannot treat import players the same as domestic players,” the source said. “Japanese players basically have to play in Japan. But the import players have over a hundred leagues/countries to choose from. Restricting their movement in Japan just means that we lose some good players who choose to go elsewhere to play, depriving the fans of some guys they are willing to pay money to see play.”
There are pitfalls to the player protection system. Mikey Marshall, who has starred for the Oita HeatDevils, Osaka and Shiga, made $4,000 per month, less than he had made playing in Kuwait and Egypt, for his three-month stint with the Lakestars last season.
He helped guide the team into the playoffs for the first time and was placed on the team’s protection list when the season was over.
Thus, Marshall had two options: Accept Shiga’s contract offer or play in another country, even if he was interested in shopping his services to other bj-league teams.
Few rational people would consider this system fair.
“I hope the bj-league continues to grow, but I also hope they get rid of some ridiculous rules like the ‘protection’ of import players,” the source said. “If you want them, offer them more money and sign them. If not, let them go.”
Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.