Manny Ramirez and the morals clause

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Manny Ramirez and the morals clause

Fri May 08, 2009 @ 09:11AM PST

By Eriq Gardner

MannyHollywood lawyers can appreciate what the LA Dodgers are going through today upon hearing news that Manny Ramirez has been suspended 50 games for using a performing enhancing drug. 

For years, "moral clauses" in talent contracts have been an object of fascination in a town famous for celebrities running amok. Ramirez's situation raises a question many a studio head has considered when picking up the tabloids: Could the Dodgers now void Manny's contract?

First, some history: Morals clauses in Hollywood originated during the silent-film era, when stars' wild parties and drug use resulted in some deaths and bad publicity for the studios.

Later, in the 1950s, the clauses became an excuse to fire suspected communists, the subject of a law paper by Weil Gotshal & Manges attorney Noah Kressler in the Columbia Journal of Law and the Arts. Since then, morals clauses have evolved further, although disputes over violations rarely make their way into courts. We know many talent lawyers believe studio morals boilerplate is  too broad and vague to be enforceable in court, and the legal and publicity cost of actually waging litigation often isn't worth any dividends. 

Now, back to Manny. Obviously we haven't seen his contract. But we checked in with Marc Edelman, a visiting sports law professor at Rutgers School of Law, who says that all player contracts at least adopt a standard clause from the league's collective bargaining agreement.  

The clause reads, "The Club may terminate this contract upon written notice to the Player...if the Player shall at any, refuse or neglect to conform his personal conduct to the standards of good citizenship and good sportsmanship or to keep himself in first-class physical condition or to obey the Club's training rules."

Edelman says its possible that the Dodgers could have added specific covenants to its contract with Manny. Perhaps they took a page from Hollywood's negotiating playbook by putting something in the contract like "The Player shall not do or commit any act or thing that will degrade him in society or bring him into public hatred, public disrepute, contempt, scorn, or ridicule, or that will tend to shock, insult or offend the community."

The Dodgers may have good ground for terminating Manny, says Edelman, on the basis that the star player violated the contract's sportsmanship and training language, although he adds that a court would fuss over whether the facts in this specific case fit the broad and ambiguous morals clause and whether the league's punishment for substance violations (the 50 day suspension and loss of salary) might trump Manny's contract.  
"My gut is that both (the contract and the league rules) can be read together," he says. "I think if the Dodgers wanted out of the contract, both parties would open negotiations and reach a settlement before getting to a black box of a win-or-lose court case."

He also adds that if the Dodgers want out of their deal with Manny, to escape paying $20 million for next season or for the opportunity to sign other free agents, they should pursue it right way. "The longer they wait, the tougher the (legal) argument becomes," he says.

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The Hollywood Reporter
The Hollywood Reporter, Esq. blog focuses on how the entertainment and media industries are impacted and influenced by the law. It is edited by Matthew Belloni with contributions from veteran legal reporter Eriq Gardner and others. Before joining The Hollywood Reporter, Belloni was a lawyer at an entertainment litigation firm in Los Angeles. He writes a column for THR devoted to entertainment law. Gardner is a New York-based writer and legal journalist. Send tips or comments to [email protected]

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