Braves Pay Dearly for Compliance Failures


By David D. Dodge

The New York Times, USA Today, and other news outlets recently reported on the latest scandal in Major League Baseball (MLB), this one involving the Atlanta Braves in violation of MLB rules.  Former Braves’ general manager, John Coppolella, was banned for life for violating international signing rules and the Braves lost 13 prospects to free agency.

According to the Times, MLB also “penalized the Braves well into the future, prohibiting them from signing any international players for more than $10,000 in 2020 and slashing their bonus pool by half in 2021.  They will not have a full international bonus allotment until 2022.”

These penalties are among the most severe ever imposed on a baseball executive and his team in the history of the game.  Just a few months before the penalties were announced, Coppolella boasted in an interview at the Braves’ new ballpark, “… for us, we’re the top-ranked system, and it’s not even close.”  The near-term future of the franchise is now in tatters.

MLB Commissioner, Rob Manfred described a thorough investigation of the case that determined the Braves “circumvented international signing rules from 2015 – 2017.”

Earlier last year, the Compliance and Ethics Blog reported on another scandal in Major League Baseball, that one involving a St. Louis Cardinals’ scouting director, Chris Correa, who had pleaded guilty to charges in connection with the hacking of the player database of the Cardinals’ rival, the Houston Astros.  Correa was ultimately sentenced to a prison term of nearly four years along with a court order to pay over $250,000 in restitution.

Unlike the Cardinals’ case which was the result of an FBI investigation, the Braves’ scandal was investigated solely by MLB.  In both cases however, Correa of the Cardinals and Coppolella of the Braves were banned for life by MLB.  The only others having received such severe penalties were Jennry Mejia, a New York Mets pitcher in 2016 for a third violation of MLB’s rules on performance-enhancing drugs, Pete Rose in 1989 for betting on MLB games as a player and coach, and in 1919 eight White Sox players for “throwing the World Series.”

As reports of scandals in sports in the U.S. become more frequent, such as the sexual abuse scandal at USA Gymnastics, and the recent college basketball scandal involving improper payments to families of recruits, it is becoming apparent that few sports organizations have effective compliance programs.  In most of these instances and in so many others, one can’t help but conclude much of the tragic wrongdoing could probably have been prevented if an effective compliance program were in place.

As of this writing, no MLB team has an effective compliance program based on the proven U.S. Sentencing Commission Guidelines for Organizations.  All too often the mindset in sports appears to be that most of the wrongdoing we’re seeing is not preventable because it is merely the result of individual misbehavior.  Also, very few sports leaders have first-hand experience or close familiarity with compliance programs, so they are reluctant to embrace a foreign concept – they can’t quite see why they need to go through all that expense and trouble.

Another barrier to the development of compliance programs in sports is that leaders are protective of their turf; they don’t want an outside party or organization telling them what to adopt and how to implement it.

Some organizations, like some individuals, learn things the hard way.  Although there is no shortage of scandals in sports – indeed, looking for one is as difficult as looking for hay in a haystack – evidently the fallout and punishment from the scandals have not been painful enough for sports leaders.