Can basketball players simply refuse to play?

Answers to your questions about the news.
March 24 2010 5:26 PM

Bad Sports

Can basketball players simply refuse to play?

Andray Blatche #7 of the Washington Wizards.
Andray Blatche of the Washington Wizards

Washington Wizards coach Flip Saunders benched Andray Blatche Tuesday after the forward disobeyed orders to go onto the court. (Blatche disputes the coach's account.) Can the Wizards sue him for refusing to play?

Yes. By signing the National Basketball Association's Uniform Player Contract, a player agrees to "give his best services, as well as his loyalty, to the Team," to "conduct himself on and off the court according to the highest standards of honesty, citizenship, and sportsmanship," and "not to do anything that is materially detrimental" to the team or the league. Refusing to play in a game against a coach's orders could therefore be considered a breach of contract. The team could justifiably withhold payment, terminate his contract, or sue him for monetary damages. (Nearly every professional sport requires players to sign a similar contract.)

The only circumstance under which a player can refuse to compete—in just about any professional league—is if he's injured. Normally, it's up to the team doctor to decide whether an athlete is fit to play. If the player disagrees—or gets a second opinion from an outside doctor—he can file a grievance through the players union, which then negotiates a solution with the team.

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It's rare for players simply to decline to go on the court or field, partly because it's a PR disaster. Chicago Bulls forward Scottie Pippen famously refused to get off the bench with 1.8 seconds left in a playoff game against the New York Knicks in 1994. He wasn't punished, but the incident tainted his reputation. It's somewhat more common for a recently-traded player to not report for games with his new team. After Kenny Anderson was traded to the Toronto Raptors in 1998, for example, he refused to compete with the Canadian team. Occasionally, a pro will ask to play less. Starting Carolina Panthers quarterback Kerry Collins, battling alcoholism and accusations of racism, asked to be taken out of the starting lineup. The team obliged him. Sometimes NFL players will receive criticism for failing to show up to off-season workouts, but such workouts are voluntary according to the league's collective bargaining agreement.

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Explainer thanks Michael McCann of Vermont Law School and Geoffrey Rapp of the University of Toledo.

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Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.

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