Ann Heisenfelt/AP
Golden State Warriors guard Monta Ellis

Warriors Guard Ellis Will Lose $3 Million for Injury, Lie

October 13, 2008 12:17 PM
by Denis Cummings
The Golden State Warriors announced they will not pay guard Monta Ellis for 30 games while he rehabs an ankle injury suffered in a moped accident.

Ellis Suspended For 30 Games

Monta Ellis, a 22-year-old guard, signed a six-year, $66-million contract in July. The Warriors hoped he would become their go-to scorer after all-star guard Baron Davis signed elsewhere, but he mysteriously suffered an ankle injury on Aug. 21 and was told by doctors he would be sidelined for three months.

Ellis first told the team that he was injured while playing basketball, but he soon admitted that the injury was suffered in a moped accident. Because the standard NBA player’s contract forbids such activity, the Warriors have the right to suspend or fine Ellis, or even void his contract.

On Saturday, over a month after Ellis admitted to lying about the injury, the Warriors suspended him for 30 games without pay. Ellis would have missed the 30 games anyway because of his injury, but he would have been paid for that time. Instead, the suspension will cost him nearly $3 million.

At the announcement of the suspension, team president Robert Rowell explained why it was necessary to suspend Ellis even as some in the organization—including general manager Chris Mullen—were asking for leniency.

“Chris Mullin made it perfectly clear to both Mr. Cohan and myself that he didn’t think this was a big deal at the beginning,” he said. “And we happen to think it’s a very big deal. We happen to think that it’s a big deal for our fans, it’s a big deal for our season-ticket-holders, it’s a big deal for our business partners, it’s a big deal for the Warriors’ organization.”

Ellis has yet to publicly comment on the suspension, but the USA Today reports that agent Jeff Fried hinted at an appeal. “We’ve previously evaluated Monta’s options, and now that the team has taken a definitive position we will move aggressively in protecting Monta's rights,” Fried said Sunday night.

The suspension of Ellis bucks the trend of star players being treated leniently in these situations. In the past, teams have generally avoided punishing star players who recover from their injury, but lesser players have received large fines or had their contracts voided.

Background: Ellis’ injury and lie

On Aug. 21, Ellis suffered a Grade 3 high ankle sprain, a serious injury that takes about three months to heal. He told the Warriors that he hurt his ankle during an on-court workout in Mississippi, but the Warriors were skeptical that he could be injured so severely in a workout. They sent their trainer to investigate and found out that Ellis also had cuts and abrasions on his legs—injuries that could not have been suffered on a basketball court.

On Sept. 6, the Contra Costa Times reported that Ellis admitted to the Warriors that the injury “happened outdoors and not while playing basketball.” Later in the month, it was revealed that Ellis was hurt in a moped accident.

Riding mopeds is a prohibited activity under the NBA’s uniform player contract, as are other potentially dangerous activities like skydiving, snowboarding, mountain climbing, boxing and motorized racing. The Warriors had the option to void Ellis’ contract, suspend him or fine him.

Mullin and head coach Don Nelson both stated publicly that Ellis should not be strongly punished. “Sometimes people learn more from experience than they do from … you know … questions and accusations and lectures and things like that,” said Mullin.

Opinion & Analysis: Is the suspension fair?

Gwen Knapp of the San Francisco Chronicle believes that the Warriors’ decision was fair and smart in two ways. First, by suspending Ellis for a certain period of time, rather than for as long as he is out for, they do not pressure him to return before he is fully healed. Second, they ran a “good-cop, bad-cop routine” in which Mullen and Nelson retain the support of Ellis and the team, while the team president, who has little contact with the players, is made into the bad guy.

The Mercury News’ Tim Kawakami disagrees with Knapp's “good-cop, bad-cop” theory, believing that there is a real division between Mullen and Nelson, and Rowell. “My, that sounds like there's front-office tension there, you think? That's what major incidents and major penalties do. They expose tensions and illustrate the new true nature of the franchise,” he writes.

Ray Ratto, a San Francisco Chronicle columnist writing for CBS Sports, also believes that the Warriors handled the suspension poorly. Though he thinks that the team was justified to recoup the money, he says that they were foolish to embarrass Ellis by making the suspension so public.

It's just that the extra effort the Warriors put into his punishment—the needless wait to administer justice they could have meted out weeks early, and the public posturing designed only to embarrass a player they're going to need for years to come—will turn out to be more damaging than the recouped cash will be gratifying,” he writes. “It's short-term thinking, by a franchise famous for it.”

Historical Context: Athletes injured in prohibited activities

Ellis’s story has a familiar ring to many sports fans, especially those who remember the 2002 wrist injury of another Bay Area athlete, former Giants second baseman Jeff Kent. Kent claimed that he hurt it while washing his truck, but witness reports said he was involved in a motorcycle crash. Though few believed Kent’s story, he never admitted to riding a motorcycle and the Giants never attempted to fine him or void his contract.

Two NFL players were seriously injured in motorcycle accidents in 2005 and 2006. The Browns originally recouped nearly $3 million in bonuses after former top-10 draft pick Kellen Winslow II was injured, but they later agreed to a contract extension that allowed Winslow to regain the money.

Months after leading the Pittsburgh Steelers to the Super Bowl, Ben Roethlisberger crashed his motorcycle and later needed an emergency appendectomy. Although the Steelers had warned him that riding a motorcycle would jeopardize his contract, they decided not to punish their franchise quarterback after he returned early the next season.

One player was not as fortunate as Winslow and Roethlisberger. Bulls guard Jay Williams, the second pick in the 2002 NBA Draft, nearly died after crashing his motorcycle. When it became clear that he would never fully recover, the Bulls bought out his contract for $3 million. Williams’ agent Bill Duffy praised owner Jerry Reinsdorf for agreeing to the buyout rather than voiding Williams’ contract.

“People talk about the cold and calculating nature of sports, but he was willing to help him,” Duffy said. “He hasn't penalized him as harshly as he could have for the mistake he made. That's refreshing in the current business climate of this country”

Teams have been much stricter when dealing with players who are not essential to their success. The Detroit Red Wings refused to pay defenseman Uwe Krupp for two years while a back injury kept him out of the lineup; Krupp had been seen dog-sledding during his rehab and the team said it compromised his recovery. Baseball's Aaron Boone was the hero of the 2003 American League Championship Series, but the New York Yankees voided his contract after he was hurt playing basketball in the off-season.

Last year, the Los Angeles Lakers Vladimir Radmanovic separated his shoulder while snowboarding, but told the team that he slipped on a patch of ice. After the Lakers discovered the basketball player was lying, they fined him $500,000, nearly 10 percent of his salary.

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