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When sports teams suffer a disaster, sports leagues rely on bylaws written in advance to put pieces back together


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Planning For The Worst

When sports teams suffer a disaster, sports leagues rely on bylaws written in advance to put pieces back together


By Michael Anft



On a brutally cold and snowy night one January, the Minneapolis Lakers boarded a twin-prop plane home. They had lost to the St. Louis Hawks, 135-119, that day, despite 43 points from their second-year star, Elgin Baylor -- yet another setback for a team plummeting to the bottom of the NBA standings. Ten Lakers, nine of their kin (including four children), and three flight crewmembers set off into a cold fog and headed north.



Within an hour, an iced-over windshield had made the lack of visibility worse. Pilots stuck their heads out the window to try to see where they were and where they were going. The radio failed, cutting off communications that might lead the plane toward a safe landing at a nearby airport. The floor of the plane's cabin froze. The crew's attempts to fly above the clouds led to a lack of oxygen, which caused some people to pass out. In the rear of the plane, Baylor -- a cut hulk of a man -- cowered, entwining his arms and legs around a seat, bracing himself for a collision with the earth.


As it turned out, the crew managed to land the plane gently in an Iowa cornfield covered knee-deep in snow, leaving the Lakers to dribble another day. As legend has it, after the jubilant Lakers and their families walked off the plane, amazed that their lives had been spared, the local undertaker walked up and said with more than a dram of disappointment: "Thought I had some business tonight, boys."


That was nearly 52 years ago. Since then, professional sports teams in the United States, with few exceptions, have been even luckier than the 1960 Lakers. For every turbulent, stuck-inside-a-washing-machine plane trip, like the one the Ravens took to Minnesota during the preseason five years ago, there are thousands of bus rides and plane trips that run so smoothly they make everyone think that the unthinkable couldn't happen.


But as last month's mass death of the entire Lokomotiv Yaroslavl professional hockey team in Russia, lost in a plane crash, points out, a stateside pro sports team may provide the Grim Reaper with some business one sad day. The best that leagues and teams can do is plan ahead to make sure that the team will survive its losses and have a clear chance to rebuild, while players and their families are taken care of.


Although officials of most major leagues and Baltimore's two major pro franchises are loath to lay out their worst-case scenarios for public inspection, team and league sources and documents indicate that the plans Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League devised have some clauses in common.


The bylaws of each stipulate a "restocking draft" that allows a team decimated by disaster to choose players from other teams to fill out their rosters. Most take advantage of insurance policies to help keep teams solvent. And most allow the sport's commissioner, sometimes after seeking advice from the players' union, to cancel a team's season if its losses cut too deeply.


Here's a quick overview of how each of the four American major leagues and the NCAA would recover from calamity:



Perhaps the most public and explicit of sports-league disaster plans is found in baseball's major league rules, revised most recently in 2008. The league has endured one near-tragic event in modern times, when the California Angels' team bus, en route from New York to Baltimore, swerved off the New Jersey Turnpike in 1992, injuring a dozen members of the team's traveling party and forcing manager Buck Rodgers to take three months off to recuperate.


MLB Rule 29 states that if five or more players on a 25-man roster (or six or more from the 40-man) suffered death, dismemberment or permanent disability from a "common accident, epidemic, illness, or other common event," the commissioner and players' association would consider a mourning period during which no MLB games would be played. The commissioner and union would also decide whether the so-called disabled club would be able to finish its season and take all measures necessary to determine the remaining schedule for non-disabled squads.


If both management and labor agreed, a restocking draft would be held to aid the affected team. If the disaster occurred during the season, each non-affected team would offer up five players from its 25-man roster, as it was constituted during the day of the disaster, for selection by the disabled team. If the tragic event unfolded during the offseason, each team would offer five players from its 40-man roster instead. Each team would offer one pitcher, one catcher, one outfielder, one infielder and a fifth player of any position, with the names kept confidential unless a player is chosen. Teams with fewer than three catchers could opt to add a player from another position instead.


The affected team would then select as many players as it lost during the calamity, with guarantees that each choice's major league service time closely mirrored that of a player lost during a tragedy. Each of the non-disabled teams would lose no more than one player to the draft. If the disabled club's personnel losses were especially deep, management and labor could decide to award the team more amateur draft and Rule 5 selections. Even if a player lost his life or was permanently injured, his contract would be honored.


"99.9 percent of our contracts are guaranteed," said Pat Courtney, a spokesman for MLB.


He said most players or their families would be paid in the event of the loss of life or limb, or the cancellation of a team's season.


"Insurance policies, workmen's compensation, and other things will also pay out," Courtney said, "but mostly, it's about teams honoring those contracts."


Courtney said Major League Baseball maintained insurance policies to help affected clubs get back on their feet.


Players who had negotiated no-trade clauses would be exempted from participating in any draft, though those players could choose to waive the clause and join a restocking team.



Unlike other leagues, the NFL splits its view of calamities into "disaster" and "near-disaster" categories. The near-disaster tag would be invoked when 14 or fewer players on the typical 53-man roster became disabled (or worse) during a single event, while disaster denotes a tragedy involving 15 or more players. As with the other leagues, non-affected clubs would be called upon to fill the tragedy-scarred team's sidelines.


"The affected team would select players from other clubs, which are able to protect a certain number of players from being picked," said Clare Graff, an NFL spokeswoman. She wouldn't elaborate further.


According to sources found online, the particulars look like this: Affected teams under the near-disaster guidelines would get preferential treatment for waiver claims. If a quarterback was one of the 14 players lost, the team could draft two quarterbacks from other NFL clubs that had a minimum of three QBs on their roster. Those teams could protect two of their quarterbacks, meaning they wouldn't be eligible for the draft.


A team affected by a full-fledged disaster could have its season canceled, if the commissioner's office deemed it necessary. That team would then receive the first pick in the collegiate draft, and would take advantage of an overall restocking draft of NFL players. Other teams could protect 32 players from the draft while the affected team refilled its roster. But if that team's season was not canceled, near-disaster plans would go into effect and there would be no restocking draft.


Various NFL representatives could not be reached or declined to comment about how individual player contracts would be handled in the aftermath of a disaster. Unlike other major sports leagues, the NFL does not guarantee the majority of its contracts.



Even though the Minneapolis Lakers saga provided one of the scariest major league examples of what could go wrong, the NBA didn't put a specific disaster plan in place until 1984. According to an NBA spokesman who would talk only on background, a "dispersal draft" would take place following a disaster, if necessary, to get the affected team's roster back up to 12 players.


Each non-affected team would be able to protect up to five players. The impacted team could select players from the other teams in any order, but claim no more than one player from any individual team's unprotected list.


For every player chosen, the team losing a player would receive $1 million or more from the affected team. (At the moment, the NBA is dealing with a potential disaster of the economic kind, having canceled the first two weeks of its season because of labor/management strife.)



Bylaw 16c lays out the NHL's Emergency Rehabilitation Plan, which mandates insurance for a team in the event of death or disability of five or more active players from one club's roster. The team could use the insurance to buy replacement players from other teams. It could also add players to the major-league roster from its own farm system.


If, after that, the team still did not have a total of 14 players and one goaltender, an emergency draft would take place. The league's other 29 teams could protect 10 players each, along with one goalie. NHL players are insured for $1 million or more. This money would be used to pay teams who lost players in the emergency draft.



While pro leagues have remained basically unscathed by unforeseen tragic events, the amateur ranks haven't been as fortunate. Football teams from Marshall and Wichita State (both in 1970) and basketball teams from Evansville (1977) and Oklahoma State (2001) suffered devastating losses when planes crashed, as did the U.S. boxing team in 1980 and the U.S. figure skating squad in 1961.


Girded by such harrowing experiences, the NCAA has come up with guidelines for dealing with tragedies, should they befall any of the organization's 89 championship sports, particularly during the championship tournaments themselves. If a school team lost the majority of its players, the NCAA would not expect it to play out its schedule.


Planned games or meets would be ruled not as forfeits for the other team, but instead would be given the rubric "no contest." The NCAA carries catastrophic injury insurance, which includes a $25,000 death benefit paid to the student-athlete's estate should he or she die during travel to or from practice or competition. Individual schools may also have a benefit plan in place for their athletes.


The NCAA also carries insurance policies to offset economic losses from its broadcast agreements and tickets sales. But it does not oversee Bowl Championship Series games, and conferences and the schools themselves bear some responsibility for picking up the pieces after a disaster involving those games and regular-season ones.


Emily Potter, an NCAA spokeswoman, said the association served as a resource and supporting agency a colleges or university should a dire event mar its regular season.

"Importantly, NCAA member institutions and conferences are responsible for conducting regular-season competition," Potter said, "while the NCAA oversees the championships."


I have always been curious what would happen if one of the planes carrying a team fell out of the sky. Now I know. Just found it interesting.

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