Sports and courts become inseparable teammates of late

July 10, 1992|By Joe Gergen | Joe Gergen,Newsday

Recent developments confirm the suspicion that the most significant appendage in American sports is not the sole property of Michael Jordan, Roger Clemens or Randall Cunningham. Rather, it is the long arm of the law. With each succeeding week, the limb appears to reach into additional corners of athletic endeavor.

By seeking an injunction in federal court to prevent the implementation of commissioner Fay Vincent's realignment of the National League, the Chicago Cubs joined a long list of

plaintiffs seeking to redress alleged wrongs through legal means.

The baseball executive isn't likely to find much sympathy in NFL headquarters. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and his staff are on the defensive in a Minneapolis courtroom, where eight players are suing the league on antitrust charges.

Nor do the divisions in sports break down simply along the lines of management vs. labor or owners vs. their elected spokesman. In the NBA, the Washington Bullets have filed tampering charges against another club, the New York Knicks, in the matter of the latter's pursuit of free agent Harvey Grant. The case will be heard by a special arbitrator approved by the NBA and its players association.

It's not nearly as messy a situation as was resolved by the NHL. In what may have been the biggest and certainly was the clumsiest trade in the sport's history, the Quebec Nordiques dealt coveted rookie holdout Eric Lindros to two teams in a matter of hours. The league called in a special arbitrator to clear up the confusion. He, not the Nordiques nor Lindros, selected the Philadelphia Flyers over the New York Rangers as the party of the second part.

Track and field, once the province of unpaid athletes and amateurish officials, has acknowledged its ascent to the world of corporate profits in appropriate fashion. Two weeks ago in New Orleans, Butch Reynolds held the Olympic Trials hostage while he attempted to block the drug suspension imposed by the international governing body. His event was postponed until the legal system intervened, allowing him to compete. Having succeeded in one arena, he failed in the other, finishing fifth in the 400-meter final. Perhaps in the old days, somebody would affix a moral to that story. In the litigious '90s, a restraining order would be more appropriate.

One major difference now is the rights that players and individual franchises (see Los Angeles Raiders) have earned through lengthy court battles. As a result, any decision of substance is likely to be challenged by one party or another. And rarely can a man or woman single-handedly affect major change in sports.

This is an era of consensus, of committees, of juries. For instance, the fate of true free agency in the NFL will be determined by a panel of female jurors whose qualifications include complete ignorance of football. After strikes failed and // negotiations with the league faltered, the players resorted to the court of last resort.

Little wonder that when the NHL needed a temporary replacement for outgoing president John Ziegler, an attorney, they turned to Gil Stein, the league's vice president and general counsel. David Stern had been the NBA's first general counsel before his promotion to executive vice president and his elevation to commissioner. Tagliabue represented the NFL in Congressional hearings and before the Supreme Court before he was selected to succeed Pete Rozelle, the public relations man who had shaped the league's image.

Vincent never defended baseball in a court of law. He was brought in by his good friend, Bart Giamatti, to serve as deputy commissioner, ascending to the office upon the latter's sudden death. Nevertheless, his background includes the practice of law. In these times, it comes with the territory.

Alas, the rash of legal issues appearing on the sport pages leaves fans only one contingency for which to root: recess.

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