Pros Should Probe Teams’ Leaks of Players’ Medical Information: Viewpoint

By Kavitha Davidson, Bloomberg View | December 24, 2014

The trade sending Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp to the San Diego Padres finally went through late Thursday night, after a rocky process that seemed to involve some questionable gamesmanship. Major League Baseball officials would do well to give the whole episode some serious scrutiny.

A week earlier, the Dodgers agreed to send Kemp and catcher Tim Federowicz to the Padres in exchange for catcher Yasmani Grandal, pitcher Joe Wieland and right-handed prospect Zach Eflin. According to ESPN, Los Angeles also agreed to send $32 million to partially offset the $107 million remaining on Kemp’s contract.

But the deal still hadn’t been finalized several days later, and the teams came awfully close to letting it expire at yesterday’s “soft deadline.” What happened? USA Today’s Bob Nightengale reported yesterday afternoon that it was being held up by concerns over Kemp’s physical, which revealed “severe arthritis in both hips.” Almost immediately, rumors began circulating that the Padres had leaked the results of the physical to Nightengale in an attempt to leverage more money from the Dodgers.

If true, the tactic proved fruitless — the Dodgers ultimately sent the originally agreed-upon $32 million. Nonetheless, Kemp’s situation sheds light on some of the dirty tricks teams are able to employ in such transactions.

We don’t know for certain if the Padres were behind the leak, though the Dodgers themselves believe that to be the case. Not only did the Dodgers not agree to any additional concessions, but it’s not exactly like Kemp’s injury concerns are a secret. He missed 145 games combined in 2012 and 2013, and has had serious surgeries on his ankle and shoulder. Still, it wouldn’t be the first time injury info was used to try to game the system.

In the weeks leading up to this year’s NBA Draft, reports surfaced suggesting that teams were leaking injury reports on Kentucky power forward Julius Randle in the hopes that he’d fall to them. Randle had been considered a top-five pick, and at one point occupied the No. 2 spot on Chad Ford’s ESPN mock draft. After Yahoo Sports reported that he might require surgery on his right foot, he began falling in the projections. Randle denied needing surgery, telling ESPN he believed teams that wanted to draft him had planted the story. Randle was ultimately selected seventh overall by the Los Angeles Lakers. (Randle broke his leg on opening night and is out for the season.)

To be fair, it’s not just teams that might strategically release a player’s medical information to their benefit. As the Randle story unfolded, reports surfaced that Arn Tellem, the agent for center Joel Embiid from Kansas, was only releasing medical info to certain teams, hoping to steer his client to a club he favored. Embiid was once projected to be the top pick, but those hopes were dashed when he suffered a stress fracture in his right foot less than a week before the draft. It seemed Embiid and Tellem then decided to use the injury to their advantage, hoping that keeping certain teams in the dark on his condition would deter them from drafting him. The Philadelphia 76ers were one of the teams Embiid had expressed interest in playing for and ended up taking him third overall. I’ll leave it to you to judge whether or not you’d consider the tactic “successful.” (Embiid has yet to play a game in what has been a brutal season for rookies.)

Assuming there were actually leaks in all these cases, there’s an important distinction between the Kemp/Randle situation and Embiid’s — namely, player consent. While involving the athlete in such a shady undertaking is simply unethical, doing it without his consent should probably be downright illegal. As several commentators have noted, if the Padres leaked the results of Kemp’s physical to diminish his trade value, that’s in clear violation of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which maintains the confidentiality of our medical records.

MLB and the players’ union should launch an investigation into the source of the leak, a move that Dodgers beat writer J.P. Hoornstra says wouldn’t be unprecedented. Teams have previously used the insurance portability act to their advantage: invoking it when they don’t want to openly answer questions about players’ injuries; it has even been used to skirt accusations of controversial painkiller injections by athletic trainers. It’s not too much to ask that an athlete’s federally protected medical privacy is respected under the same law.

Professional leagues can’t allow such tactics to prevail in what should be a relatively straightforward process. It’s not just federal law that’s undermined — the entire system of player transactions is, too. Whether it’s attacking a free agent’s character to lower his market value or devaluing a trade target by casting doubt on his health, teams need to build their rosters without resorting to dirty pool.

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