Obtaining confidential information on other teams always comes with some controversy. And sometimes that even leads to legal action. The latest case of that comes from a lawsuit the New York Knicks filed in Manhattan federal court Monday, claiming that the Toronto Raptors obtained Knicks’ confidential scouting and play reports from former Knicks’ employee Ikechukwu Azotam, who the suit describes as a “mole.” Here’s more on the suit, filed against Azotam, Raptors’ head coach Darko Rajaković, and the Raptors’ organization, from Larry Neumeister of The Associated Press:
Azotam notified the Knicks in late July that he was leaving. His final day was Aug. 14, and the Knicks’ security team identified the theft last Tuesday, the lawsuit said.
In early August, Azotam began to illegally convert and misappropriate the Knicks’ confidential and proprietary data, the lawsuit said. On Aug. 11, he sent two emails from his Knicks email address to his new Raptors email address containing “proprietary information with highly confidential material,” the lawsuit said.
What exactly is the alleged “proprietary information” here? Well, the lawsuit spells out some of it. It discusses advanced scouting reports on the Indiana Pacers, Denver Nuggets, and Dallas Mavericks, with those including “team and player statistics, key plays and play frequency data, specific player tendencies and scouting, strategy analyses and other information.” It also claims Azotam “misused” access to a Knicks’ subscription to Synergy Sports to “to create and transfer for [the Raptors’] use over 3,000 files consisting of film information and data, including 3,358 video files,” which it says Raptors’ employees accessed more than 2,000 times.
Azotam was hired by the Knicks in August 2020 as an an assistant video coordinator. He was later promoted to director of video analytics and player development assistant. The lawsuit says new Raptors’ coach Rajakovic and the team started recruiting him in June to build their own coaching and video operations staff, which led to his July notice to the Knicks and his eventual August departure for Toronto.
There’s a long history of sports information scandals, covering everything from sign-stealing through secret videotaping through leaked play information. But while those often have consequences within the sport, it’s more unusual to see it become a legal case. That’s definitely possible with proprietary computer files, though, and former St. Louis Cardinals executive Chris Correa received a 46-month prison sentence in 2016 for unauthorized access of a protected computer in a scandal where he accessed the Houston Astros’ internal database.
Of course, the Knicks-Raptors case is currently in civil court, not criminal court. And there’s a major distinction between claims of an employee improperly taking information with them to a new job to claims of one team’s employee accessing another team’s database from the outside, and the Knicks’ allegations here appear to center around the former. But employees taking confidential information to a competitor is a major issue in the corporate world, and one that can have both financial and legal consequences. And while this was filed in civil court, Knicks’ parent company Madison Square Garden referenced potential criminal consequences in a statement on this, saying “Given the clear violation of our employment agreement, criminal and civil law, we were left no choice but to take this action.”
For their part, Raptors’ parent organization Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment put out a statement Monday denying the Knicks’ claims:
Raptors' statement on the reported Knicks' lawsuit, which alleges that a former NYK employee illegally took proprietary files with him to his new position in Toronto: pic.twitter.com/Pwqg2XPRV6
— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) August 21, 2023
Disputes between teams within the same league are usually resolved by the governing body of that league. It’s interesting to see one like this wind up in court, and there are plenty of notable dimensions here, including the international angle of the Knicks and Raptors playing in separate countries. We’ll see what comes of the Knicks’ lawsuit.