In a show of solidarity, or perhaps defiance, about 50 NBA players packed themselves into a cramped ballroom last week to announce that they were not only going to leave the league’s latest take-it-or-leave-it offer, but they also were willing to possibly forfeit their entire 2011-12 salaries to get a collective bargaining agreement that they deem fair.
The stunning decision to dissolve the players’ union, followed by two antitrust lawsuits levied against the league in Minnesota and California, has further delayed the resolution of a lockout that is now in its 143rd day — and threatens to eliminate at least one NBA season.
Charles Grantham worked for the players’ union from 1978 to ’95, serving as its executive director for the last seven years, and doubts the current course for the players — with the first six weeks of the regular season already wiped out — will yield the desired result.
“Quite frankly, I’ve always taken a position that I thought the job of the union was to keep the players working, and that the amount of loss that would be represented here would be astronomical for those that play and the people who work in the system,” said Grantham, an adjunct professor on professional sports negotiations at Seton Hall University’s Stillman School of Business. “I think at a certain point, it became emotional and it kind of got off the track, while they were close to a deal. They should’ve made one.”
After agreeing to a 50-50 split of basketball-related income — a giveback of nearly $280 million per year — the players were unwilling to accept a proposal that also placed restrictions on free agents and had harsher penalties for high-spending teams.
“We had given and given and given. [The owners] got to the place where they just reached for too much. And the players decided to push back,” Billy Hunter, the executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, said last week while explaining the move.
Grantham respects the players for taking a stand on principle but doesn’t want it to result in the NBA joining the NHL as the only North American professional sports league to lose an entire season because of a labor dispute. After refusing the implementation of a hard salary cap, NHL players wound up losing their salaries for the 2004-05 season and accepting a deal that included a hard salary cap and a 24 percent rollback on salaries.
“Don’t confuse resolve with good judgment,” Grantham said. “Hockey players had good resolve. No one can say how strong the kids were for standing up for what they believed in, but they made the wrong judgment. You’ve got to make the right judgment here. And once the fight is over, you get back to work and you live another day.”
Grantham believes the players will be fortunate to receive a shortened season and likely won’t get a better deal than the one they rejected. With half of nearly $4 billion in revenues at stake, Grantham questioned whether “it’s even worth losing that kind of money. I look at it from a kind of cost-benefit analysis. It looks like there is nothing there, or certainly not enough, that it’s worth losing the whole season for.”
David Boies, the attorney representing the players in the lawsuit involving Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant, among others, said he hoped that the threat of treble damages — or three times the lost wages from the lockout — would encourage the sides to eventually reach a settlement on negotiations.
“If it were up to the players, games would be being played right now,” Boies said, placing the onus for the legal battle on the owners and their negotiating tactics. “You don’t give up hundreds of millions of dollars unless you really want to make a deal.”
The decision to take the dispute to courts was upsetting to agent David Falk, who was heavily involved in the 1998 labor dispute that resulted in a 50-game season. He blamed Hunter and NBA Commissioner David Stern for what he calls a “monumental failure” to get a deal done and contends that a decision of that magnitude should have involved more players providing input, not just the 50 players in the room on Monday.
“I just don’t think it’s appropriate,” Falk said. “We are heading into some deep waters and if you want to maintain support from 430 players a month from now when the paychecks stop, then you’ve got to make sure those guys had a voice in the decision and they didn’t.”
Hunter said that there was a “groundswell” of more than 200 players who had signed a petition to vote on the decertification of the union with the National Labor Relations Board and the disclaimer of interest helped expedite the process.
“It’s sort of chaotic,” Grantham said. “You have to wonder who is being best served at that point. Is it the lawyers? No matter what happens in court you still have to sit down and do what? Negotiate a deal between the parties. All I’m suggesting is, is at a certain point, the business takes precedent or should, or it’s bigger than your position or my position.”