Alex Rodriguez's legal team challenges players union


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Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees has been waging a high-profile battle to keep his record clear despite an unprecedented suspension ordered by Major League Baseball, which accused the third baseman and several others of connections to a clinic distributing banned drugs.

Among the legal battles he is fighting -- along with the help of his law firm, Pittsburgh-based Reed Smith -- may be one that pits him against the union that is obligated to represent him.

If that's the case, legal experts say, it is an unusual tactic, but one that could reflect the growing wealth of professional athletes who can afford their own legal counsel and chafe at the traditional role of sports labor associations.

"The narrow view is that the union has a fiduciary duty to represent the interest of its members," said Larry Silverman, former general counsel with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Mr. Silverman, who sat in on many arbitration hearings during his tenure with the baseball team, teaches sports law at the University of Pittsburgh and has been following the Rodriguez case closely.

Alexander Emmanuel Rodriguez, nicknamed A-Rod, has drawn attention for many things over the years. He has been one of baseball's most prolific hitters, even if he hasn't always been a popular player.

His 2001 contract with the Texas Rangers -- a 10-year, $252 million deal -- was the most lucrative in baseball history at the time. He was a member of the Yankees' 2009 World Series championship team and has had a tumultuous personal life, including a nasty divorce in 2008 and rumors of an affair with pop singer Madonna.

Mr. Rodriguez admitted four years ago that he used anabolic steroids while he was with the Rangers, but he has denied using them since.

He was suspended for 211 games on Aug. 5, when Major League Baseball disciplined 13 players for their relationship to Biogenesis of America, a Florida anti-aging clinic accused of distributing banned performance-enhancing drugs. Mr. Rodriguez's suspension was the longest handed down. The other 12 players disciplined were banned 50 games apiece, and the Milwaukee Brewers' Ryan Braun had previously been suspended 65 games.

Major League Baseball said Mr. Rodriguez's penalty was triggered by "his use and possession of numerous forms of prohibited performance-enhancing substances, including testosterone and human growth hormone over the course of multiple years." His punishment was "for attempting to cover up his violations of the program by engaging in a course of conduct intended to obstruct and frustrate the office of the commissioner's investigation."

On Oct. 3, Mr. Rodriguez filed suit against Major League Baseball and commissioner Bud Selig for "tortious and egregious conduct" in the investigation with the goal of destroying Mr. Rodriguez's reputation and career, according to court documents. He also sued the Yankees' team doctor and a New York City hospital, claiming a hip injury that he suffered was misdiagnosed.

Reed Smith's New York City-based co-head of litigation, Jordan Siev; its investment management chairman, James McCarroll; and litigator Casey D. Laffey are part of the legal team that filed the suit against Mr. Selig and MLB.

But the move that has legal experts most interested is one reported in a recent New York Times story, which indicated Mr. Rodriguez's legal team sent a letter to the Major League Baseball Players Association in August, seeking to have the players' union representative removed from an arbitration hearing because the union failed to "fairly represent his interests."

A Reed Smith spokeswoman said the firm could not discuss the case.

Greg Bouris, director of communications for the MLBPA, declined to speak about Mr. Rodriguez's case specifically, citing confidentiality rules. But Mr. Bouris noted that any player is entitled to private legal representation under the league's collective bargaining agreement, which can often mean the best of both worlds for a player facing arbitration.

"The player can select the counsel of his choice and has legal representation from the people who know the collective bargaining agreement inside and out: the players' association," Mr. Bouris said.

It would be puzzling if Mr. Rodriguez really is attempting to distance himself from the union representing about 1,200 players, said Pittsburgh sports attorney Ralph Cindrich, himself a former Pitt and National Football League player.

"If he is going out of his way to make things adversarial, I don't know how that does anything but compound his problems," Mr. Cindrich said. "I've never known of anyone so powerful that could come in and rule that way."

Players unions grew to prominence during the 1960s and 1970s. Over time, the associations' efforts have led to higher salaries for athletes at either end of the spectrum, both the franchise superstars and the entry-level players, in a number of different sports.

Baseball has had some form of union almost since the game's inception; in 1885, a group of players formed the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players in opposition to team owners' attempts to cap salaries. The current Major League Baseball Players Association became a union in 1966 and, with the help of a United Steelworkers of America negotiator, Marvin Miller, established the sport's first collective bargaining agreement in 1968.

Like any labor union, players unions represent members in matters of salary negotiations and with grievances against management. Issues of player safety and playing conditions are also under the unions' purview.

And, like any other labor union, players unions often have to represent members accused of conduct that the rest of the membership doesn't support.

"The other players might be saying, 'Why are you representing these guys, who may be hurting the sport?' There's that inherent conflict with any union, but this is a situation that takes it to the extreme," Mr. Silverman said.

Mr. Bouris said the sentiment against drug use among the MLBPA members is strong. "Players will not tolerate other players violating the rules," he said. "But they all insist on confidentiality in such matters and due process for the rights of the accused."

One athlete's case can have implications or set precedent for the membership at large. Take the case of former Penguin Matt Cooke. Mr. Cooke hit Boston Bruins' Marc Savard in the head during a game in March 2010. Mr. Savard suffered a concussion and was not able to resume his playing career.

Under the rules at the time, the hit was considered legal and Mr. Cooke was not disciplined.

But the situation convinced the National Hockey League to enact tougher rules, with the NHL Players Association proposing a rule that would eliminate such hits entirely.

It's not yet clear how Mr. Rodriguez's strategy may play out. The Reed Smith attorneys are part of a massive legal team he has assembled, which also includes sports law expert David Cornwall of Gordon & Rees and high profile New York City litigator Joseph Tacopina.

Regardless of the pedigree of Mr. Rodriguez's private legal team, Mr. Cindrich said, players, including Mr. Rodriguez, need to have the union on their side. Mr. Cindrich suggested that the Yankees star may be setting up some sort of future claim against the union if he is unsuccessful in appealing his suspension.


The Associated Press contributed. Kim Lyons: klyons@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1241. On Twitter: @SocialKimly.

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