NBA players, owners closely watching NFL labor court case

April 7, 2011

The eyes of the average NFL fan might be glazing over by now, as the league’s labor dispute wends its way with numbing complexity through federal court.

But at least one group outside of the NFL holds an intense interest in the dense legal drama: players in the NBA.

NBA players would likely benefit nearly as much as NFL players if U.S. District Court Judge Susan Richard Nelson decides to lift the NFL’s lockout when she issues a ruling in the next couple of weeks after hearing arguments Wednesday in Minnesota.

“It’s unfortunate the two biggest sports leagues are going through this at the same time,” Heat star Dwyane Wade said Thursday in Miami. “Hopefully we can learn something from the way both sides have approached it.”

A ruling in favor of the NFL players would not only send them back to work, pending appeal, but it also would set the stage for NBA players and union chief Billy Hunter to take precisely the same legal approach — with far less risk than the football players assumed — if faced with stalled negotiations in the coming weeks. Their collective bargaining agreement with the NBA expires July 1.

“Billy Hunter and the National Basketball Players Association have to be ecstatic that the NFLPA is litigating this,” said Robert Boland, a professor who specializes in antitrust law and collective bargaining at New York University. “If it resolves itself in favor of the players, suddenly the NBA players have a real weapon to combat a possible lockout.”

Even so, anything short of a blatantly favorable ruling for the NFL players would probably serve to strengthen the NBA’s ownership, which experts say holds the edge in leverage thanks to the league’s documented financial struggles and NBA players’ reputation for splintering in past disputes.

The NBA owners are surely watching the court case as closely as the players. The sides haven’t talked seriously since the all-star break, and neither has made a formal proposal in the 10 months since July 2010, when the players advanced a counter-offer in response to the league’s initial offer that January.

It’s the owners’ turn to put something on the table, yet they are likely waiting until after their board of governors’ meetings late next week in New York — and for a ruling from Nelson.

“It’s not just sports; a lot of employers are watching this particular issue and a lot of unions are watching this issue,” said Bruce Hoffman, a former deputy director at the Federal Trade Commission who now handles antitrust litigation as a partner at Washington’s Hunton & Williams. “Whatever way she rules, it will change the dynamic between unions and employers, and that’s just as true for the NBA as it is for anybody else.”

Unlike the NFL players, the NBA players have never taken the step of ending their players’ union so they could file an anti-trust lawsuit — which makes their interest in developments in the current case all the more intense.

When league owners locked NBA players out at the start of the 1998-99 season, the players did not abandon their union; instead, the parties continued negotiations through the winter. In January, as players’ solidarity began to fracture, a deal was reached and a 50-game season was played.

The NBA players and owners are split now on a number of issues, a key one being how much of the league’s total revenue players should receive. Owners say the current figure of 57 percent is too high and more than 20 teams are losing money; NBA Commissioner David Stern has said the league lost more than $350 million last year.

In contrast to the NFL’s franchises, NBA teams have provided their players’ union with detailed financial information on every team. Union representatives, however, have publicly said they interpret the numbers differently than the owners. Everyone, however, agrees on this key fact: The NBA is not the money-printing machine the NFL is.

“There is no question there are many teams losing a lot of money,” said Robert Tilliss, the founder of Inner Circle Sports, a sports financing firm that has done work for the NBA.

Experts say at least a handful of NBA teams would actually lose less money with a league shuttered than if the 2011-12 season were played without a new economic arrangement, a fact that surely boosts the league’s resolve to weather a work stoppage.

Whether a ruling from Nelson would undermine that resolve remains to be seen. Jeffrey Kessler, a prominent attorney who works both for the NFL players and NBA players, said at least one message should already be clear to both sides.

“One would hope basketball could learn from the lessons being provided now from football,” Kessler said during a recent conference in Miami. “Basketball doesn’t need an interruption right now. Basketball needs to make a deal.”

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