Wednesday, October 05, 2005

The Curry Problem

No this post isn't about the bad chutney I had two days back (for which I am paying for dearly).

Eddy Curry has been traded to the Knicks for refusing a DNA test. It pains me to say it, but I'm with Commissioner Stern (a.k.a. Urine-face III) on this one.

Basketball players are corporate entities. The Bulls signed Curry to a 4-year, $12,534,242 contract, with the 4th season as a team option worth $3,896,402. With that kind of money on the line, you should be required to give up this medical information provided that: (1) the information is kept private, (2) the results are not used for a purpose other than the purpose for which the test was mandated (for example, checking Curry's DNA for a heart condition as opposed to screening for a sexually trasmitted disease). Players already succumb to a host of blood tests, x-rays, and physicals. Why should a DNA test be any different?

Some cite privacy concerns, but I just don't buy it. It's not as if the need for this DNA test is completely out of left field; Curry has been sidelined since March due to a heart arryhythmia. It's the equivalent of showing probable cause. There's a reason the Chicago Bulls needed to know. They're making a huge investment in a marquee player and they want to make sure that this investment is good in the short and long term.

My friend suggested to me that DNA was different because it was inconclusive and cannot pre-determine someone's future heart conditions. But no doctor can pre-determine anything, so should all medical testing be out the window? All medical results of this sort are used as useful guides, not determinative (except for things like drug tests, MRIs or simple tests like cholesterol and blood counts). It is up to the Bulls to interpret the DNA results carefully, but they should have access to the results in the first place.

I think the most compelling argument in favor of DNA testing in sports is based on an information-maximization theory. Aren't players, teams, and fans all better off by knowing whether a player is putting their life in jeopardy? A team will avoid a costly investment, a player will become aware of this condition and be better suited to deal with it accordingly, and fans won't have to worry about people dying on court.

Sure the player's career might be over. The Eddy Curry stock will plummet in value because who wants a player with a confirmed heart irregularity--besides the Knicks, who need all the help they can get. Sure players themselves might say, "You know what, I'm willing to take the risk; I'd rather take the slim chance that I could croak and make a truckload of cash by running around for five years and cash out."

But that's not really the end of it. Think of the adverse consequences if DNA testing were banned as too invasive. Players would be more likely to hide their medical conditions and just desire to "not know." I am a firm believer that having more information--even too much information--is always preferable to not having enough. A ban on DNA testing would create a perverse behavioral response. Players would put their own lives on the line, never knowing or wanting to know what is in store for them.

So, you do the cost-benefit analysis.


chris fyall said...

I don't think the Bulls should expect Curry's DNA, nor am I particularly excited that they are allowed to ask for it. I believe DNA is, Yes, a private issue. At the same time, and more tangibly, I see it as an issue of contractual negotiation.

First, I want to point out that Curry underwent a rigorous off-season battery of Bull-sponsored heart exams, and has been cleared to play by at least one Los Angeles cardiologist. The Knicks are conducting non-DNA tests of their own.

To this issue, I see two primary points of value related to mandatory DNA testing: 1) avoiding potential on-court deaths, and 2) minimizing corporate risk. Obviously, given Curry's previous history, and the fact that two high-level basketball players stricken with heart arrhythmia have died in the past 20 years, Curry's DNA is particularly valuable to all stakeholders -- most obviously the Chicago Bulls, but Curry, too, and also the larger public. Nobody wants to see a player die.

While a DNA test will address that concern, DNA testing cannot answer it in any real way, and that is a fatal flaw. The test cannot show that Curry does not have the heart problem, a condition that afflicts, the NYTimes reported this week, 1 in 500 adults. There is no such thing, then, as a good result for Curry while a negative result potentially ends his career. From a contractual standpoint, if he undergoes a DNA test, Curry assumes all risk. To the Bulls credit, the organization offered Curry a deal: if he underwent the test, and he had heart arrhythmia, they would give him $400,000 a year for the next 50 years, a package that has a present value of roughly $5 to $6 million. He is due nearly $4 million this year, and his next contract will likely exceed $40 million for 5 years.

Nevertheless, the predictive value of the test is questionable. Even if Curry plays with undiagnosed heart arrhythmia, he won’t necessarily die. If 1 in 500 adults have it, in all likelihood, and at all times, multiple professional athletes have the condition. Death from the condition is uncommon, the NYTimes reported. The finality that would accompany a positive test therefore is a false conclusion. Even after the test, neither the Bulls, nor Curry, nor the public would know what heart arrhythmia would do to Curry or his career.

Curry’s DNA is nobody’s business but Curry’s. Curry’s contract with the Knicks has already been structured, the NYTimes said, to release the franchise from liability in the event of career ending heart problems. That is fair.

I am relatively satisfied with the solution, but concerned about the precedent the Bulls have set. Curry was traded at cut-rate. His value is diminished, and while that is unquestionably fair, it seems easier to imagine that without interference, more teams will adopt Chicago’s tact, by demanding DNA tests, than New York’s. (In non-health related matters, at the very least, they’d be wise to. Isaiah Thomas is a damn fool). The practical effect of widespread Bulls-style insistence would be, with so few employers, mandatory DNA testing.

I’m against it.

Mad.J.D. said...

The only thing I'm against is playing for the Knicks. Bad idea.

chris fyall said...


Best article I've seen on since Eric Neel's Page Two MLB All-Stars a year ago.

Most relevant fact: Illinois is one of 10 states that has no statutes against DNA testing by employers and insurance companies.