“Those three words, ‘Monday Night Football’, resonate like no other.”
— Al Michaels
“Being traded is like celebrating your 100th birthday. It might not be the happiest occasion in the world, but consider the alternative?”
— Joe Garagiola
The sports world breathed a sigh of relief this week as the quietest period in the North American sporting arena came to a crashing conclusion with the start of NFL free agency, the beginning of March Madness, and the end of a 99-day lockout in Major League Baseball.
Much of what goes on in the sports world, particularly in professional sports, is a matter of legal arrangement — player contracts, broadcasting licenses and collective bargaining agreements. The MLB owners and Player’s Association finally came to agreement on the latter of those, clearing the way for a massive wave of free-agent signings that are, themselves, complex legal agreements that include financial compensation terms, no-trade clauses, options to extend contracts, and even provisions about behavior, drug use and injury.
Among the more unusual legal aspects of sports is the trading of player contracts between teams. The practice is not entirely unique to sports (and in many sports outside of North America, contracts are “sold” for financial compensation), but when was the last time you heard that Honda had traded an engineer to PPG for two resin coordinators and a tech support agent to be named later?
The reason you don’t is fairly obvious, though most people don’t sign a contract for a term of years when they take a job. They simply agree on a wage and benefits, and show up to work. If they get a better job offer elsewhere, they give notice and leave. There is no contract linking them to that job that would have to be “traded” to another employer. But North American pro sports don’t work that way for coaches, players or (as we learned this week) broadcasters.
Early this week, news broke that one of the most unusual trades in sports history had happened behind the scenes. It involved no players, but rather a broadcaster and the television rights to a football game — an Ohio State football game, none the less. It seems that NFL color commentator Troy Aikman’s contract with Fox expired at the end of last year, and he signed a new deal with ESPN to cover Monday Night Football games. It was ESPN’s desire to keep Aikman paired with his Fox broadcast partner, Joe Buck. But Buck’s contract with Fox didn’t expire until the end of the 2022 season.
So how was ESPN to pry Aikman away from Fox? What could they offer the network to get their favored broadcaster over to their airwaves? It turns out that the bait involved some Buckeyes and some Fighting Irish. In particular, this September’s Ohio State-Notre Dame football game, which ESPN had the rights to. Buckeye games bring big audiences and big advertising dollars, and when the opponent is Notre Dame, those audiences get huge. So ESPN made a unique offer to Fox — let Joe Buck out of his contract a year early and we’ll give you the Ohio State-Notre Dame broadcasting rights. The deal was reportedly sealed about a week ago.
It’s certainly not the first unusual trade in sports history. In 1919, the Martinsburg Mountaineers, a minor league baseball team, traded pitcher Lefty Grove to the Baltimore Orioles for … a fence. It seems that Martinsburg’s fence had been destroyed in a storm and they didn’t have the money to fix it. So the Orioles (then also a minor league team) paid for the new fence and got a future hall of famer who would win 300 games in the majors.
In 1994, Dave Winfield, also a future hall of famer, was traded from the Minnesota Twins to the Cleveland Indians. But the 1994 strike ended the season and Winfield never played a game for Cleveland. To settle the trade, executives from the two teams went out to dinner and the Cleveland crew picked up the check. Thus, Winfield has the distinction of being the only Major League Baseball player ever traded for a dinner.
This week’s deal wasn’t the first trade involving a broadcaster. Back in 1948, Ohio Wesleyan alum Branch Rickey needed a substitute broadcaster and traded a catcher named Cliff Dapper to Atlanta’s minor league team in exchange for broadcaster Ernie Harwell. Harwell would only stay with the Dodgers for a short time, and after passing through New York and Baltimore, would call games for the Tigers for the next 42 years.
In fact, Major League Baseball has seen managers traded for each other, players traded for bats (John Odum), balls (Tim Fortugno), the money to finance a musical (Babe Ruth), and even a single dollar (Kris Draper).
But my favorite trade of all time happened in 2005 when former Cleveland defensive stalwart John McDonald was traded by the Toronto Blue Jays to the Detroit Tigers for “future considerations.” This usually means that the teams have agreed on a short list of players from which the trading team can choose at a later time. When the season ended and it came time for Detroit to get their end of the deal, the player they chose to acquire was … John McDonald, making him the only player in MLB history to be traded for himself.
The legal ramifications of the new MLB collective bargaining agreement could fill 100 of these columns, but the implications of the Joe Buck agreement are clear — he signed a five year, $75 million agreement with ESPN.
David Hejmanowski is judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas, where he has served as magistrate, court administrator, and now judge, since 2003. He has written a weekly column on law and history for The Gazette since 2005.