Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Great Moments in Legal History: Latrell Sprewell Sues the NBA Claiming to be a Slave

Yes, ladies and gentleman, the law, and the legal profession, has had a long and distinguished history. Litigation has often served as the marching point for balancing the inequalities society has often imposed upon its citizens. There are some moments, like Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Kansas, where Oliver Brown courageously took on the segregationist educational system of America asking the Court, and indeed, America: Does the segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race deprive the minority children of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the 14th Amendment?

This was brave. This was bold. But it is nothing compared to this great moment in legal history: the day Latrell Sprewell, a professional basketball player, filed suit against the National Basketball Association claiming a violation of his 13th Amendment right; Mr. Sprewell was a slave, and the NBA was his slave master. Said Mr. Sprewell, later, in rejecting a three-year, $21 million contract with the Minnesota Timberwolves (while at the time making $14.6 million per year), an NBA team (and therefore one of his alleged "slave masters"), "they're not doing anything for me. I've got a lot at risk here. I've got my family to feed. If (team owner Glen) Taylor wants to see my family fed, he better cough up some money. Otherwise, you're going to see these kids in one of those Sally Struthers commercials soon (where she solicits donations for starving children in developing countries) ." Indeed, Mr. Sprewell, what slave could afford to feed his family on $14.6 million per year? Indeed.

The 13th Amendment, adopted in 1865, reads:

Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime where of the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Section 2. Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

The 13th Amendment was passed in order to legally ensure that the economic system upon which persons, known as slaves, are deprived of personal freedom and compelled to work. They are held against their will from the time of capture or birth, and are deprived of the right to leave, refuse work, or to receive compensation in return of their labor. They were generally horribly mistreated and worked in inhumane conditions. In sum, slaves were not people, but property, and were often cruelly treated as such.

Fast-forward to the year 1999, Mr. Sprewell and his team of "legal eagles" filed suit against the NBA for a host of offenses. In their complaint, Mr. Sprewell alleges the Golden State Warriors (the team employing him at the time) and the NBA, "conspired to violate Mr. Sprewell's civil rights and violated his freedom of contract, because of his race, which is Black and African-American."

The start of this incident occurred on December 1, 1997, when Mr. Sprewell and his coach/(and I'll assume, someone he views as a "slave master" of sorts) got into a physical altercation while in practice. The trial court, Sprewell v. Golden State Warriors, 1999 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 3875 (N.D. Cal. Mar. 26, 1999), described the altercation as such:

Plaintiff attacked Carlesimo after the coach repeated a request that plaintiff pass the ball with greater force. Plaintiff slammed the ball down and told Carlesimo to "get out of my face, get the fuck out of here and leave me the fuck alone." Carlesimo responded, "you're the fuck out of here." Plaintiff then either walked or lunged at Carlesimo, grasped his neck driving him backward and stated, "I will kill you." Carlesimo offered no resistance and the two were separated. As plaintiff left the practice floor he stated, "trade me, get me out of here, I will kill you," to which Carlesimo countered "I am here."

After showering and changing, plaintiff, apparently feeling the need to re-articulate his position, returned to the practice facility and stated to Carlesimo, "you better get my ass out of here, get me the fuck out of here." Despite the efforts of two assistant coaches to restrain him, plaintiff succeeded in approaching Carlesimo and throwing an overhand punch that grazed Carlesimo's right cheek. A second blow landed on Carlesimo's right shoulder but may have been inadvertently delivered by plaintiff in his attempt to break free from those who were trying to restrain him. As he left the facility, plaintiff again stated, "I will kill you."

To set up his point regarding the 13th Amendment violation, and the villainy of his "slave master." Mr. Sprewell, in his motion, described Mr. Carlesimo as a "Caucasian, [who] took over as head coach of Defendant Warriors. Mr. Carlesimo was presented to the public under the banner "No More Mr. Nice Guy." In advertisements, Mr. Carlesimo was dressed like a gangster and portrayed as a coach who enjoyed taunting and screaming at his team. Mr. Carlesimo was and is known to be an abusive and caustic coach who frequently uses foul and threatening language towards the players on his team."

After the altercation, Mr. Sprewell was fined, suspended for the remainder of the season, and was then fired (thereby losing privileges to his $6.4 million per year salary). Disputing his contract termination (indeed, Mr. Sprewell, in his complaint referred to the punishment as "harsh"), Mr. Sprewell and the Warrior, in accordance to the collective bargaining agreement, took the matter to arbitration where the arbitrator ruled in favor of Mr. Sprewell. Clearly, the arbitrator must have believed, choking your boss should get you fired.

After being reinstated, and then subsequently traded, Mr. Sprewell initiated litigation against the Warriors and the NBA. One ff the offenses disputed was a violation of Mr. Sprewell's 13th Amendment right to not be a slave.

In regard to the 13th Amendment complaint, Mr. Sprewell argued:

Defendants intentionally interfered with Mr. Sprewell's freedom to make and enforce contracts in violation of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution of the United States of America and Section 1981.

Defendants' conduct was based upon Mr. Sprewell's race, African-American and Black, in violation of Section 1981. Historically, the management of Defendant NBA are white. A majority of the management and owners of Defendant NBA teams such as Defendant Golden State Warriors are white. However, a majority of the players are African-American and Black, like Mr. Sprewell.

Mr. Sprewell's complaint included a violation of the Sherman Anti-trust Act.

At the district court, amidst tension and drama, the court ultimately sided against Mr. Sprewell, stating:

Whatever evidentiary value a predominantly white management afford of an intent to discriminate in hiring or promotion, plaintiff's allegations are directed toward wrongful termination and excessive employee discipline. In this context, the mere allegation that management is predominantly Caucasian and plaintiff is African-American does not support an inference that defendants intentionally discriminated against him in his capacity as a player...

Moreover, the mere assertion that "some" white players obtained favorable termination provisions fails to provide a ground for inferring racial animus against plaintiff. Such facts are equally consistent with non-discriminatory treatment. Finally, it is unclear how plaintiff has been harmed by a failure to obtain better termination rights given the arbitrator's rescission of the Warrior's contract termination.

Amazingly, this case was taken to the 9th Circuit, Sprewell v. Golden State Warriors, 266 F.3d 979 (9th Cir. Cal. 2001), but, on relevant issues, the 9th Circuit affirmed the district court.

In sum, the law has come down against Mr. Sprewell. Apparently, in the eyes of the law, Mr. Sprewell, a professional basketball player, is not a slave.

And that, folks, ends one of the greatest moments in legal history.

Post Script:

For folks who are interested, Mr. Sprewell is still alive and well. On August 30, 2006, Milwaukee police investigated a claim by a 21-year-old female who claimed that she and Sprewell were having consensual sex aboard his 70-foot yacht, named "Milwaukee's Best," when Sprewell began to strangle her. On January 31, 2007, Sprewell's long term companion sued him for $200 million for ending their relationship agreement. She claims Sprewell agreed to support her and their four children since they were in college. On August 22nd, 2007, it was reported by multiple news agencies that Latrell Sprewell's yacht ("Milwaukee's Best") was repossessed by federal marshals after Sprewell failed to maintain payments and insurance for the vessel, for which he reportedly still owed approximately $1.3 million USD. In May 2008 a Milwaukee area home owned by Sprewell went into foreclosure status. He also owes $72,000 in unpaid taxes while his company Sprewell Motorsports hasn't paid its credit card bills. Mr. Sprewell is considering rejoining the NBA.

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