Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The NBA and Weight Clauses: Derrick Caracter joins Glen "Big Baby" Davis as Weighted Players

Last year I wrote about Glen "Big Baby" Davis's weight clause with the Boston Celtics. Davis, who is in the middle of a 2-year, guaranteed $5 million contract, can earn an additional $500,000 each year if he avoids exceeding a certain weight (he earned it in his first season).

The Lakers are now using the same device with rookie Derrick Caracter, a power forward/center who was the Lakers second round pick (#58 overall) in the 2010 Draft and whose commitment to conditioning has been questioned in the past:

The Lakers signed rookie Derrick Caracter to a $473,000 contract for the 2010-11 season that will become fully guaranteed if he weighs 275 pounds or less on Sept. 10.

Currently, Caracter is only guaranteed $250,000.

3 things about Caracter's weight clause stand out to me:

1) The high value of Caracter's weight clause relative to the guaranteed portion of his contract: Caracter can nearly double his salary if he avoids weighing too much. Talk about an incentive to stay in shape! Think about your income and the opportunity to nearly double it if you merely stay in shape. I doubt our country would have the obesity epidemic it currently suffers from if weight had such a direct impact on our earnings.

2) Unlike with Davis, whose contract is worth between $5 and $6 million depending on his weight, Caracter will not become a millionaire through his deal. To be sure, $250,000 is great money for 98% or 99% of the U.S. population--according to the 2005 census, only 1.5% of American households earn $250,000 or more per year--but he's far from being considered a "rich" pro athlete. I think it's also safe to assume that as a player who will have to fight to keep an NBA roster spot, his future income as a professional basketball player is uncertain and his endorsement potential is pretty low, if not 0, at this point. So the difference in Caracter earning $250,000 and $473,000 this year may be more meaningful for his life than the life difference for Davis--who is poised to have a fairly long NBA career--in earning $5 million, $5.5 million, or $6 million in 2009-10 and 2010-11.

3) Is weight an accurate measure for determining whether an NBA player is in good shape, when pro athletes with a lot of muscle may technically be "overweight"? As I note in my Wisconsin Law Review article on nutritional labeling, 43 out of the 50 baseball Red Sox and Cardinals players who played in the 2004 World Series were technically overweight. Some advocate using Body Mass Index (BMI) instead of weight, as it considers body fat. But NBA teams apparently view weight as an adequate measure.

Update: my thanks to Henry Abbott of ESPN and Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Times for discussing this post.

Update 2: An agent emails me some interesting thoughts that tie in the role of collective bargaining:
Setting aside the initial issue of whether an all-or-nothing weight clause is even fair, I agree that the use of weight as the deciding factor is less than ideal. What I find interesting is that BMI is probably not any better -- especially in the NBA, where players are far taller than average. Apparently the taller you are, the less accurate BMI becomes:

"the standard Body Mass Index (BMI) is inherently flawed because it assumes that a body's mass increases as the square of the height. Generally mass increases with the cube of the linear dimensions, so a formula using the square will skew to higher BMI's for tall people."

I'm a lawyer, not a scientist, so I can't say how true that is, but it highlights one of the challenges I've found with drafting player contracts, even in this sabermetric era: flawed metrics are often the only ones that can be included in a contract. More accurate measures tend to resemble a pay-for-play situation that neither side has an interest in promoting, thanks to the incentive problems it would create.

I suspect that with Caracter's contract, both sides know that measures other than mere weight would more accurately assess the underlying concern -- whether that's BMI, body fat percentage, or something else -- but weight is the metric that they can get approved under the CBA, so it's what they use.
Update 3: Jimmy Golen of the Associated Press offers some thoughtful comments:
I think the point is that, whether or not weight is the ideal metric for deciding players generally are in shape, you could certainly come up with an ideal weight, or a reasonable playing weight, for an individual that could be used to judge his conditioning. In other words, the team could be saying that Caracter is in better shape at 275 than whatever he weighed when he signed the deal, so they wanted to entice him to lose weight (or, theoretically, gain some).

More to the point: Your suggestion of BMI is moot, because it measures weight as related to height, so unless we think Caracter is still growing (or shrinking), asking him to make weight is the same thing as setting a certain BMI as a goal.