Free Agency Announcement Sheds Light on Player Mistreatment
Friday, August 1, 2003
By David W. Unkle
The transaction listing simply read that Gavin Prout, Nick Carlson, Josh Black, Gord Nash, and Matt Shearer of the New York Saints (National Lacrosse League) had been granted unrestricted free-agent status. The events that unfolded over the last seven months preceding that announcement cast a black mark on the team’s ownership and the National Lacrosse League.
Documents obtained last week indicate that the New York Saints failed to provide the players with contractually agreed upon game salaries, bonuses, and expenses. More damaging was the manner in which these contract breaches occurred. The team’s failure to rectify the situation left the league with no other option than to enforce the contract language of the standard players’ agreement.
With additional allegations of mistreatment and the team’s future in question, all eyes are on Saints owner Michael Gongas and the League Office to see what happens next.
In the meantime, players are not exactly lining up to play in New York unlike a year ago when they were courting one of the game’s biggest names.
The 2002-03 season at least started with promise for the New York Saints.
Hoping to significantly improve on the 2001-02 campaign’s 5-11 mark, the Saints kept the transaction wires busy on draft day, grabbing two first-round and one second-round pick and nabbing eleven players in all that day.
Blue-chip draft pick Nick Carlson, taken fifth overall, was expected to provide offense from the left side of the floor as well as boosting the Saints’ weak transition game.
Shortly thereafter, the Saints named former captain and perennial All-Star, Pat McCabe head coach and paired him with former teammate Matt Panetta. The team’s fate quickly spiraled downward in the weeks to follow. First, they were left at the altar by former Philadelphia Wings attacker Kevin Finneran, who opted to go to the Toronto Rock when most pundits had the NLL iron man going to the Saints.
Carlson heard the rumors on draft day that the Saints had a history the season before of paying their players late. Yet, since the players eventually were paid, Carlson remained optimistic.
The Saints opened their season on December 27, and Carlson flew from Vancouver to Toronto, anticipating an uneventful flight to Columbus along with a few Canadian teammates, including Prout. Problem was, the team had failed to file the proper paperwork and the players were held up at the border, requiring Carlson to complete the documents and pay the fees himself. Although he missed the flight, Carlson arrived in time to score a goal in a 15-10 loss.
On more than one occasion, the players were told that their work visa issues were resolved by the team’s front office, the players would arrive at the airport to discover that nothing had been done on the team’s end to file the necessary documents. This scenario repeated itself several times.
“It definitely impacted our performance,” said Carlson of the team’s poor performance this season.
However, this problem paled in comparison to what Gongas did next in attempting to justify the team’s failure to provide Carlson compensation for playing in the team’s final four games. The team claimed that payment was withheld because Carlson verbally authorized a payroll deduction to cover telephone bills, a claim that Carlson vehemently denies.
Using New York State Labor Law (Section 193), which stipulates that an employee must provide written authorization for payroll deduction, Carlson and the Player’s Association filed a termination notice to the team.
Gongas and the Saints failed to provide supporting evidence that the player authorized the deductions in writing, leading to the termination of Carlson’s contract.
“I don’t know how (Gongas) can look at himself in the mirror and then go out and face his players,” Carlson said. “I’d feel guilty. All I did was play hard for the team. I didn’t do anything wrong to deserve not being paid.”
For Prout, the team’s second leading scorer, late payments were commonplace in the 2001-02 season, but the players always were paid eventually. This past season took a turn for the worse.
The team failed to compensate Prout for game compensation totaling $2,345.75. Following receipt of a termination notice from Prout, the team satisfied the amount owed to the player.
Prout filed a separate termination notice when the team failed to compensate him for incentive bonuses in his contract totaling $2,750. Although the team provided compensation amounting to $2,250, they were deemed to be in default by the NLL.
The team also failed to compensate Prout for his participation in instructional camps and missed work pay, resulting in the termination of Prout’s contract with the team.
Although he is now free to pursue his career with other teams in the league, Prout feels more should be done to prevent other players from mistreatment from owners.
“To date, there are no consequences of Michael Gongas not paying his players,” Prout commented. “The National Lacrosse League should have been stronger in their dealings with Gongas; instead, they’re trying to do what’s right for everybody.”
“It seems like the benefit of the doubt goes to the owner and not the players,” Prout continued
Black played in four games for the Saints but suffered the same fate as his more-heralded teammates. Owed $1,709.38 by the team, Black received a check for $375 at season’s end.
“There were always issues with payment,” Black said. “Management handed out checks at the games. If you weren’t there to get your check, the team made no effort to get it to you.”
That lack of effort stung the team in Nash’s case. The team received a notice of termination from Nash for non-payment on May 9, 2003 and had 10 calendar days in which to rectify the default. The team opted to mail the check via standard mail with the check arriving on May 21. Nash is still owed bonus monies from the 2002-03 season.
The biography for Gongas on the Saints’ official web site reads that “there are few people who have the passion for lacrosse like Michael Gongas.”
His passion for the youth sport may still be there but the manner in which Gongas operated the Saints remains questionable.
In fact, another six players: Derek Suddons, Bill Greer, John Harasym, Travis Gillespie, Dan Dawson (Columbus) and Scott Stapleford (New York) have filed contract termination notices with the NLL on similar contract issues. And the Professional Lacrosse Players Association (PLPA) has filed a grievance against Columbus and New York, stating that the teams are in arrears for failing to pay union dues that were deducted from the player’s checks.
During the off-season last year, the Montreal franchise suspended operations. Washington headed to Colorado to become the Mammoth. With New Jersey announcing their relocation to Anaheim and the former Albany franchise now in San Jose beginning operations in 2003-04, the NLL has an unparalleled geographical distribution throughout the United States and Canada.
Critical to the league’s long-term success are lucrative broadcasting and corporate sponsorship deals.
“The league must have stable ownership,” Nash added. “This is a turning point for the NLL.”
For Carlson and the others, they are relieved to be away from Saints ownership. Much of the credit goes to Executive Director of the PLPA Dave Succamore and PLPA Approved Regional Attorney, Rich Furlong.
Succamore, a former professional lacrosse player, co-founded the PLPA in 1991 along with current President, Peter Schmitz and four other players, was instrumental in getting language in the current Standard Player Agreement that protected the financial interests of the players.
Nash is one who credits Succamore for his efforts. “Dave (Succamore) was aware of the provision in our contracts and helped us file the necessary documents with the Saints and the NLL.”
“The players gave (Saints) ownership accommodations and they turned around and didn’t show us the respect that we deserve,” added Nash. I am confident that the PLPA will not let this go away.
“(Rich) did a fantastic job. In fact, he did more than he was required to do,” Prout stated. “Hopefully more people like him will come out of the woodwork. He’s definitely one person that you want to have on your side.”
Carlson is happy now.
“Having my contract terminated has turned the summer around. I just want to move on and contribute to another team in the NLL.”
Still pending are the cases of other Saints and Landsharks players. To date, the Saints are in arrears for monies owed to the players. Gongas still heads up the team’s front office, and, so far, the NLL has not taken action against him
“We had an unfortunate incident in that these players were not paid in a timely manner by the team” said NLL Commissioner Jim Jennings. “It is my duty to uphold the rules of the Collective Bargaining Agreement signed in 2000, and I did that. After an intensive investigation of what happened, we determined that those players had become free agents. We will continue to use the rules and terms of the CBA to mediate any and all issues that arise among our players and team owners, and deal with each situation swiftly and fairly.”
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