On Sept. 19 Federal District Court Judge Robert L. Carter found that NBA Commissioner Larry O'Brien's award of compensation to Seattle for the loss of Marvin Webster was excessive and ruled that the commissioner's award should be set aside as a penalty in violation of the Robertson settlement agreement. Immediately after that decision Judge Carter was attacked by the commissioner, NBA general managers and numerous sports writers.
Why should there have been this reaction?
One first should look at the history of compensation in the NBA. Early in the 1970s the National Basketball Association announced it had put into effect a form of compensation, similar to that which existed in the National Football League, to "make a team whole" if a professional basketball player moved to another team at the end of his contract after having played out a one-year option.
The NBA players borught an antitrust action against the league attacking, among other aspects of professional basketball, the reserve system -- including compensation. In addition the players participated in hearings before the U.S. Senate to insure that an exemption from the antitrust laws not be granted in professional basketball, which would have perpetuated the compensation system.
Finally in April, 1976, the club owners together with the players and with the approval and guidance of the same federal judge, Robert L. Carter, settled the six-year litigation and entered into the so-called Robertson agreement (named for Oscar Robertson, under whose name the players' class-action suit was filed).
The settlement agreement was a compromise. The draft was modified, option clause eliminated and the players agreed to allow the compensation rule to stay in effect for five years and then move into a system of right of first refusal as being the only restraint on a player's ability to change teams.
However, an integral part of the entire agreement was a condition that the federal court would retain jurisdiction over all compensation disputes between the players and the owners. The court could decide whether a compensation award was excessive, which would inhibit movement of other players as free agents.
This demand for protection by the players was a major point in the negotiations and in reaching a final settlement. Therefore, the league office and owners knew that a decision such as the one in the Webster case was possible.
Has the system worked since April 1976? A qualified yes.
In 1977, 1978 and 1979 approximately 135 players became free agents. Of those players 38 have been able to move to other teams. Salaries have risen not only for the players who have moved but for those who were able to stay with their old teams or enter into new contracts before their old agreements expired.
Why has the system worked? The players believe solely because of the protection of the federal court. The first summer, not one player was able to sign until the middle of August when Bob Dandridge became a member of the Washington Bullets. Threats by the NBA players to go into court to insure the Robertson agreement was lived up to immediately opened up the market for veteran players.
The second year, the players appealed an award by O'Brien on compensation for Dean Meminger and won the case. As a result, the principle was established that the players would challenge unfair awards.
Again in 1978 the players challenged the Webster compensation ruling. Therefore in each of the three years that compensation has been in effect it has been the protection of the federal courts that has allowed players to move somewhat freely.
Has the system worked entirely? No. Four clubs have publicly stated that they were willing to sign Jan van Breda Kolff but couldn't reach agreement with New Jersey on compensation and wouldn't take a chance on the commissioner's ruling. Van Breda Kolff sits at home waiting to execute a contract rather than playing on the basketball court.
The New York Knickerbockers challenged O'Brien's ruling on Webster in court and attacked him daily in the press, creating a divisive situation within the league. The commissioner's office has now indicated that it is going to appeal Carter's ruling and drag the issue on even longer.
Has movement been good for the league? Sure. While the owner of the Seattle SuperSonics bemoans the loss of Webster, objects to not being properly compensated and states that the system doesn't work, he neglects to tell the fans that one of the stars of his team greatly responsible for bringing the championship to Seattle last year was Gus Williams, whom he signed as a free agent and who became a free agent because the court ruled that Golden State no longer had a lock on Williams' services.
The team that won the championship two years ago and reached the finals last year, Washington, clearly was helped by the presence of Dandridge.
Some newspaper reporters claim that Judge Carter saw himself as the commissioner of basketball and that this was his real desire. Red Auerbach stated that it was terrible that a federal court judge could tell the league what compensation should be and that he would never sign a free agent because he first would have to clear it with the federal court.
But if the awards were not excessive, the court would not have to rule. The players have attacked only two of Commissioner O'Brien's awards and have won both times.
While the players obviously are willing to live up to the agreement signed in 1976 and continue compensation for one more year, we have asked the commissioner why he doesn't eliminate the entire system of compensation for next season and move directly into the right of first refusal. It would be better for everyone.