SBJ/Dec. 14, 2009/This Week's News

MLBPA warns NCAA on player questionnaires

MLB Players Association Executive Director Michael Weiner criticized as unfair the NCAA’s recent inquiries into negotiations between MLB clubs and college-eligible baseball players who turned down pro contracts, warning that it could spur further legal action against the NCAA.

Weiner

“This is an area of concern for the union,” Weiner said. Asked whether the MLBPA could take action over the matter, Weiner said, “We will consider our legal options.”

The NCAA sent out questionnaires in August to student athletes who were drafted by MLB clubs in June but did not sign contracts, according to multiple sources. The questions included whether their advisers had direct communication with MLB clubs — a violation of an NCAA regulation but a common practice, according to agents and other industry sources.

“I am getting calls from parents all over the country, saying, ‘Our kid is being called in to be questioned about this questionnaire our kid filled out,’” said Richard Johnson, attorney for former Oklahoma State pitcher Andy Oliver, who won a $750,000 settlement from the NCAA regarding the regulation.

Chuck Wynne, NCAA director of communication strategy, declined to comment on Weiner’s statements. “We don’t comment on current, pending or potential investigations,” he said.

The questionnaire, sent out by the NCAA Eligibility Center, included a release for players to sign that would allow MLB and its clubs to provide the NCAA with information regarding negotiations by them or their representatives with clubs.

It is unclear whether MLB or its clubs are cooperating with NCAA inquiries. Rob Manfred, MLB executive vice president of labor, said in an e-mail, “I don’t intend to comment on the NCAA issue.”

In the Oliver case, an Ohio state judge found the regulation “arbitrary and capricious” and said it violated the public policy of the state of Ohio and every state in the union. But that ruling was vacated when Oliver — who agreed to a contract with the Detroit Tigers in August — agreed to settle the case.

Now agents are concerned that the NCAA’s inquiries could decrease MLB draftees’ market value. Some players could be suspended and miss college playing time, while others may not hire an experienced adviser to help them determine their fair-market value, agents said.

Agents requested anonymity for fear of becoming targets of NCAA investigators.

Weiner, in a telephone conversation last week, said the MLBPA was aware of the questionnaire and the release form. “As you would expect, we think that athletes, when they are deciding to sign a professional contract, should have representation,” Weiner said. “They should be able to obtain the best professional advice available. That advice should include, in our view, the ability to have their representative communicate directly with the professional club that drafted them.

“What the NCAA did, one, we think is unfair and, two, is likely to lead to more disputes along the lines of some of the disputes that have already arisen.”

In addition to the Oliver case, University of Kentucky pitcher James Paxton is seeking a court order preventing the school from requiring him to submit to an NCAA interview. Johnson, who is also the attorney for Paxton, said the university has failed to notify Paxton of what rule he is being accused of violating.

Paxton returned to Kentucky for his senior year after turning down an offer from the Toronto Blue Jays, who drafted him this summer. He is suing the university, but the NCAA is not named as a defendant in that case, filed earlier this month.

In its response to the lawsuit, the University of Kentucky said that Paxton was told that an Aug. 18, 2009, article published in The (Toronto) Globe and Mail prompted the NCAA to request an interview.

In that story, Toronto Blue Jays President and CEO Paul Beeston indicated that he never spoke to Paxton or his family but dealt directly with Paxton adviser Scott Boras, who rejected the team’s signing bonus offer. “Because it was Scott, the way that you deal you deal through him. You don’t deal through the family,” Beeston was quoted as saying.

Beeston did not respond to an e-mail. A Blue Jays spokesman did not return a phone call or reply to an e-mail. Boras’ agency said in an e-mail that it does not comment on pending litigation.

Meanwhile, players are confused as to how to deal with the NCAA’s questionnaire and release form. The form states that if the student does not provide accurate information to the NCAA Eligibility Center, his eligibility to play college ball could be negatively affected.

The NCAA’s Wynne, asked what would happen to students who didn’t fill out the questionnaire or sign the release, said, “To tell you in a straight-forward manner what we would do, there are so many nuances, I can’t do that,” Wynne said.

One agent said he was advising athletes to tell the NCAA Eligibility Center that the information they were seeking was protected by attorney-client privilege.

“If every NCAA athlete responded the same way to the questionnaire, what is the NCAA going to do?” the agent said. “We are not going to have NCAA baseball next year?”

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