Sports Biz with Darren Rovell

NBA's Stern Troubled By Healthy Players Sitting On Bench

Shaquille O'Neal and LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers
Getty Images

LeBron James won’t be playing against the Atlanta Hawks tonight. He’ll be resting up for the playoffs, just as he did on Sunday against the Orlando Magic.

But does LeBron deserve to rest?

That question was posed by Tim Povtak, AOL Fanhouse’s senior NBA writer, after the Magic game. Povtak reasoned that Cavaliers fans paid money to see the game that LeBron was supposed to play in. Based on James’ per game pay, Povtak said James should reimburse each fan $9.35 each.

It’s really an age-old question. What do you buy when you buy a ticket? What is guaranteed?

"We're troubled by it," admitted NBA commissioner David Stern, when I asked him about it on Wednesday afternoon. "Because it will be our preference that healthy players play."

Stern said league executives were watching with "great interest" when this became a very public issue when the Indianapolis Colts began to sit their players at the end of the season.

That being said, Stern says he sympathizes with teams like the Portland Trail Blazers, who saw its leading scorer Brandon Roy tear the meniscus in his right knee on Sunday. Stern said he has put the issue on the agenda at this week's Board of Governor's meeting, "but our inclination is that this is a matter for the teams to look their fans in the face, and their competitive colleagues in the face and make the right decision."

For fans of the Cavaliers, it doesn't seem to be too much of an issue. The team doesn't guarantee that James will play for every game. And that’s why when we asked the Cavs we weren’t surprised that the amount of people who actually complained about a healthy LeBron sitting on the bench were “very, very minimal,” according to Tad Carper, the team’s senior vice president of communications.

“Our fans have been great all season,” Carper said. “We’re confident they know what our ultimate goal and motivation here is. A championship -– the same as their ultimate goal. So we’re all together in this. We’re doing what we feel will put us in the best position to pursue it as we enter the playoffs.”

But what about on the road? There it gets a little bit more complicated. While the Hawks didn’t specifically guarantee LeBron for tonight, they sold ticket packages that included the Cavaliers. It’s more of an implicit “get to see LeBron,” than a contract.

But it still doesn’t get us to the point of refunds.

“I can understand how someone can be upset if they bought a ticket from a broker or a scalper for tonight’s game in Atlanta,” said Bill Sutton, associate director of the DeVos Sport Business Management Program at University of Central Florida. “But the Cavaliers have the obligation to do what is best for them.”

Sutton, who also runs a marketing and revenue enhancement consultancy firm, said that it’s much like buying a ticket to a Broadway show.

“You might choose to go to a show because James Earl Jones is in it, but then you show up and he’s not there,” Sutton said. “You don’t get a refund there either and you just pray the understudy is good.”

In 1999, fans of the Ottawa Senators filed a class action lawsuit against Alexei Yashin, the star player who held out for the year. But, after a judge determined that the fans could not prove that they bought the tickets based on Yashin’s participation alone, the suit was dismissed.

Similar cases of fans suing players or teams for lack of participation have also been seen as lacking teeth. In Strauss v. Long Island Sports (1977), a man claimed that he bought season tickets because of pre-season ads with Julius Erving in them. When Dr. J got traded before the season, the fan sued for a refund. The judge ruled that the possibility of a trade was among the risks that ticket holders assumed.

There is however at least one case where money was refunded. In 1993, the San Diego Padres traded Darrin Jackson soon after it wrote season ticket holders saying that the team would contend for a title thanks in part to a young roster of players including Jackson. The Padres did offer refunds to fans who believed that they were duped.

The irony of that situation was that Jackson went to Toronto and only played in 46 games that year –- hitting .216 with 5 home runs and 19 RBI. The guy the Padres traded for? Derek Bell, who finished the ’93 season with a .262 batting average over 150 games with 21 home runs and 72 RBI.

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