The Disaster Drafts

On December 13, 1977, a plane carrying all but one of the members of the University of Evansville (Indiana) basketball team crashed during takeoff on the way to a game against Middle Tennessee State University. Also on board were the team’s head coach, three school administrators, the radio announcer, and a three-man crew. The crash left no survivors.

The tragic accident left the university’s basketball program in shambles, as one would expect. But not to downplay the tragedy, the plane crash had only a minor effect on the rest of the NCAA basketball universe. Teams already played asymmetric schedules, with many teams having a different number of regular season games on the docket than others even in their own conference. The show must go on, so to speak, and it was able to do so relatively easily. That is, relatively to how a pro league would be affected.

Let’s take Major League Baseball, for example. There are now 30 MLB teams, each of which play 162 games, although not in even amounts against one another. (The New York Mets, for example, play 19 games against the Philadelphia Phillies this year, but only six against the San Diego Padres, three versus the Seattle Mariners, and none whatsoever against the Boston Red Sox.) If one of those clubs were suddenly unable to field a team, the schedule would fall apart. And besides, you don’t want to have the hometown team’s fans suffer through forfeits for the rest of the season especially after a tragedy.

So Major League Baseball has, buried within its rules, a disaster plan. And, for that matter, so do the National Football League, the National Basketball Association, and the National Hockey League.

The details of each system vary, of course, but in general, these all involve drafts of some sort, with the affected team taking players from those unaffected. The MLB, NBA, and NHL rule kicks in if approximately five (or more) players are affected by the disaster; the NFL’s requires 15. Only the NFL’s allows for the commissioner to, effectively, end that team’s season — the others proceed with the expectation that the team will play on.

Each system tries to strike a delicate balance between two needs which are, in some sense, in opposition. First, one certainly wants the team which just suffered its massive loss to have a semblance of respectability. On the other hand, the league can only pull talent from other teams, and doesn’t want to harm those other teams unduly or disproportionately. So each system limits the number of players any given team can lose to the affected team. The NFL allows the harmed team to take quarterbacks off other teams, but those players are to be returned to their original teams after the season. As ESPN noted, the NHL, uniquely, financially compensates the teams which lost players via the draft — the league has set up a special insurance fund to provide these payments.

So far, none of these systems have yet to be used, and hopefully, it’ll remain that way.

Bonus Fact: The only member of the Evansville basketball team not killed in the plane crash was a freshman named David Burr who missed the trip — and, therefore, the doomed flight — due to an injured ankle. Unfortunately, fate soon caught up with him. He and his brother died in a car accident about two weeks later.

From the ArchivesSwing and a Miss: The woman who struck out Babe Ruth (but wouldn’t be eligible for a disaster draft).

RelatedThe official MLB rule book.