DALLAS – Doom and gloom descended on the NBA’s labor negotiations Wednesday, with union officials revealing that the owners’ original insistence on a hard-cap system with shorter and non-guaranteed contracts has not changed during the 18 months since the bombshell proposal was made.
“There’s no hiding the fact that the main components of what we originally received in their proposal has not changed at all,” said Lakers guard Derek Fisher, the president of the National Basketball Players Association.
That proposal, submitted to the players in January 2010, called for nearly a 40 percent salary rollback derived from a hard-cap system that would eliminate guaranteed contracts, shorten contract length and cut annual raises by as much as two thirds. Despite counterproposals by each side since then and three bargaining sessions during the Finals – including nine hours in the past two days – there has been “little or no movement on the part of the owners,” said Billy Hunter, executive director of the NBPA.
Asked if the owners or their negotiators have directly informed players that they will be locked out July 1 if they do not accept these changes, Fisher said, “Yes they have. That’s the best way I can put it. It’s very clear that if we don’t agree to what we’ve been offered so far, we’re probably facing a lockout.”
The gloomy comments from union officials came a day after NBA commissioner David Stern stated that he was “optimistic” a deal could be achieved before the current agreement expires June 30. But given the negotiating details revealed by the players, it would appear clear that this optimism relates to Stern’s belief that the players will cave – not that a compromise will be reached.
So apparently, Stern misspoke when he said Tuesday the owners and players were continuing to negotiate in hopes of achieving a "breakthrough" in the talks. What he really meant was a breakdown in the players' insistence on keeping the system largely the way it is.
"Our owners are thoroughly united in the need for change and also completely behind our various proposals as we seek to compromise with the players," Stern said Wednesday.
But compromise on what? The date and time of the players' surrender?
Given that the players have filed an unfair labor practices charge against the owners, accusing them of not negotiating in good faith, NBPA attorney Jeffrey Kessler openly questioned whether the owners simply repeating their demands amounts to negotiation.
“We just are discouraged because there’s been so little movement from their side, which makes us wonder what their real intentions are,” Kessler said.
Stern tempered his optimism Wednesday, saying the two sides remain “very far apart. … Both sides have moved, but we’re not anywhere close to a deal.”
At the conclusion of Wednesday’s bargaining session, Hunter said one owner stated that he was pessimistic that a deal would be reached by the end of the month – a possibility that would result in a lockout, and presumably an anti-trust lawsuit from the players seeking to adopt the strategy implemented by NFL players, which is pending on appeal with the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.
“I’m forced to share that sentiment,” Hunter said. “It’s going to be a difficult struggle.”
A formal counterproposal made by the players last week in Miami was countered by the owners this week – though each side agreed to put these verbal proposals in writing before meeting twice more next week. The first meeting will be Tuesday, in Miami if the NBA Finals requires seven games, or in New York if it doesn’t. Another session is scheduled for Friday in New York.
“As long as there’s negotiation, I’m optimistic,” Stern said. “If we were at a point where it didn’t pay to have negotiations, we wouldn’t be planning meetings for Tuesday and Friday of next week. Neither side is posturing.”
Knicks guard Roger Mason, a member of the players’ executive committee, emerged from Wednesday’s four-hour session and said, “This is going to be a scenario where the players are going to have to sacrifice. I think at the end of the day, owners are probably going to have to sacrifice as well.”
It hasn’t happened yet, and the clock is ticking toward labor Armageddon for a sport that is enjoying a new zenith of popularity and international interest. Shortly after union officials finished addressing the media at the Hilton Anatole hotel in Dallas, the NBA distributed a news release with the latest astronomical TV ratings for the NBA Finals – which through four games are averaging 15.5 million viewers, the most-watched Finals since 2004.
“The owners say that they don’t want their own game if the players won’t agree to radically change the system,” said Kessler, who also is litigating the NFL labor dispute, which is bogged down in the federal courts. “It’s an odd position when the game is the best it’s ever been, when the ratings are the highest they’ve ever been, when the excitement is the greatest it’s ever been. It’s sort of odd to see the owners say, ‘We’re going to destroy this game unless you change this whole system.’”
Since their initial proposal, the owners have proposed phasing in their draconian changes, a concession that was not viewed as such by the players, since a hard-cap system would by definition require grandfathering in existing contracts that do not fit under the $45 million hard cap proposed by the owners. Stern's negotiators have proposed a two-year phase-in of their new system on a 10-year CBA. The players are not only adamantly opposed to a hard cap and 10-year deal, but also reluctant to accept what sources described as an 8 percent giveback in Year 1, a 13 percent giveback in Year 2, and a 39 percent reduction in salaries thereafter under the phase-in compromise.
While sources say owners have yet to clearly explain their insistence on using a hard cap to bridge the approximately $750-$800 million gap between the two sides, the players have proposed what appear to be little more than incremental changes that would leave most of the existing soft-cap/luxury tax system in place. The players' most recent proposal to accept a reduction in their 57 percent share of basketball-related income as revenues rise was described this week by Stern as "tiny" and insufficient to get a deal done.