By Seth Corwin, Law Clerk at McLane Middleton
On Tuesday, September 12, 2023, Columbus Blue Jackets Head Coach, Mike Babcock, was accused of invading his players’ privacy by former NHL player and “Spittin’ Chiclets” podcast host, Paul Bissonnette. According to Bissonnette, several players informed him that Babcock was asking players in the coach’s office to use “AirPlay” to display player photos on the office wall. Following the accusations, Babcock put out a press release through the team’s social media account denying the accusations and stating “[w]hile meeting with our players and staff, I asked them to share, off their phones, family pictures as part of the process of getting to know them better[.] There was absolutely nothing more to it than that. The way this was portrayed on the ‘Spittin’ Chiclets’ podcast was a gross misrepresentation of those meetings and extremely offensive.” Notably, other Blue Jackets players have come to the defense of Babcock, including Blue Jackets captain, Boone Jenner, and NHL superstar, Johnny Gaudreau, stating that they believed it was a positive experience and a chance to get to know one another better. National Hockey League Players Association (the “NHLPA”) officials met with the Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday, September 14, 2023 and with the NHL during a previously scheduled meeting on Friday, September 15, 2023 to discuss the issue. Ultimately, Babcock resigned on Sunday, September 17, 2023, stating that “continuing as head coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets was going to be too much of a distraction[.]”
Despite the fact that Babcock resigned, the question remains as to whether the NHLPA had any recourse under the NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement (the “CBA”) or the NHL standard player contract in relation to player privacy. While Babcock’s actions could be characterized as unethical, he has not explicitly violated the CBA or the standard player contract. This places a spotlight on the importance for contractual agreements to have clear language because the terms of the CBA and the standard player contract are unclear as to whether Babcock is in breach of the respective contractual documents. For example, per Article 5 of the CBA, teams are allowed to manage themselves how they see fit. Moreover, under Article 30.7 of the CBA, each team can require its players to abide by various rules stipulated under the CBA, provided that written notice is provided to the players. Finally, under the NHL’s standard player contract, teams are allowed to implement rules governing the conduct of the player so long as they are deemed “reasonable”. The language used in these sections is ambiguous and raises important questions like whether Article 5’s scope includes actions like Babcock’s, whether this was a team rule, and if it was a team rule, whether written notice was provided to players and whether Babcock’s actions would be considered “reasonable”. Suffice to say, having unambiguous language in your contractual agreements can prevent contractual disputes over the meaning of the contract and provide each side with clear avenues towards obtaining relief.