Posted on: November 8, 2011 8:53 pm
Edited on: November 8, 2011 9:07 pm
NEW YORK -- Union chief Billy Hunter said Tuesday he's "cool" with Paul Pierce leading a decertification movement within the National Basketball Players Association and is "not at all opposed" to the Celtics star taking the lead.
"I think Paul is kind of frustrated with the process," Hunter said after a news conference in which the players said they were rejecting the league's latest take-it-or-leave-it proposal. "Paul has been at the bargaining table and he doesn’t feel that we’ve been making any kind of progress. And so he thought that maybe that’s necessary. We don’t have a lot of options and that’s the option Paul was pushing – still is pushing."
Asked in a small group of reporters if he's cool with that, Hunter said, "Of course. Listen, I’m cool with Paul and all these guys. I think it’s very important. I’m happy that Paul and the others are involved in the process. That’s always been the problem with athletes, that a lot of stuff is foisted on them and they have no input. Paul has been actively engaged, he understands, he’s been in five or six of our negotiating sessions, he talks to me, and when they had the (decertification) calls, he called and let me know that they were having the calls. And I said, 'Hey, I'm not at all opposed to you doing that.' ... I endorse what Paul did."
Hunter later said in an interview on NBA TV that Pierce informed him Tuesday that about 200 players have committed to signing a petition seeking a decertification election if a deal is not consummated before commissioner David Stern's 5 p.m. ET Wednesday deadline to accept the owners' latest proposal -- which includes the same 50-50 split of revenues the union is now prepared to accept.
With owners almost certainly following through on their threat to forward a worse proposal to the players if they didn't accept the one on the table, the talks could be thrust into chaos even if Hunter is successful in securing another bargaining session Wednesday. Once the decertification petition is filed with the National Labor Relations Board, the players seeking to dissolve the union would have to wait 45-60 days for the agency to hold an election -- a period during which negotiations with the NBPA could continue.
But given how long Hunter has been waiting for the NLRB to act on the union's unfair labor practices charge, filed in May and amended in July, it's anyone's guess as to whether a decertification threat could be carried out and reach a conclusion in time to save the season. In general, the NLRB does not authorize decertification petitions and or schedule elections while a union has an unfair labor practices charge pending.
"It’s like waiting for the fairy godmother," Hunter said, chiding the NLRB for failing to act on the union's charge, for which a complaint against the NBA could result in a federal injunction lifting the lockout. The NBA subsequently filed am NLRB charge of failing to bargain in good faith against the union, and there's been no action on that one, either.
"I'm hoping that they will get some expedition, particularly if they’re reading in the papers all the things that are happening," Hunter said. "It’s getting hectic on both sides of the table. It’s a federal agency beaurocracy and maybe they think it’s too hot a potato, they don’t want to touch it."
Or just as likely, the NLRB has been hoping the two parties can reach a new collective bargaining agreement on their own without the agency's intervention. If rational minds prevail, that's still possible -- given that the league and union have finally closed what was once a multi-billion-dollar economic gap and have only a handful of system issues, some fairly minor, standing in the way of a deal.
Posted on: November 8, 2011 6:54 pm
Edited on: November 9, 2011 12:54 am
NEW YORK -- Calling David Stern's bluff with the backing of 29 player reps, the National Basketball Players Association rejected the NBA's latest offer Tuesday and requested an additional negotiating session before the league's self-imposed 5 p.m. Wednesday deadline to accept their proposal or subject themselves to a far worse deal.
"Our orders are clear right now," union president Derek Fisher said, flanked by more than 40 players. "The current offer that is on the table from the NBA is not one we are able to accept."
Billy Hunter, the union's executive director, said he planned to call Stern and request further bargaining in the hopes of closing the gap on a list of at least five system-related issues that are standing in the way of a deal. Stern, speaking on NBA TV Tuesday night, said he "always" takes Hunter's calls.
But there is little if any reason to expect Stern not to follow through on his threat to retract the owners' latest proposal offering the players a 50 percent share of revenues and replace it with a far more punitive one -- including a 53-47 share in favor of the owners, a hard team salary cap, rollbacks of existing contracts, and backtracking on a litany of other system issues the two sides previously had agreed upon.
"We'll just wait and see what it is the league does," Hunter said. "I would assume that if we end up being able to reach a deal -- whether it's reached tomorrow or reached four days from now -- even if they were able to impose this artificial threat of rolling back to 47, I'm convinced that they would more than likely, gladly come back and do the 50-50 deal if that's a possibility."
Hunter and Fisher said little time was spent discussing the issue of decertification, a nuclear tactic that hard-line players and agents have been pushing for the past few weeks. Hunter said the measure, which would effectively dissolve the union in an attempt to pressure the league with the threat of anti-trust damages, was "not a worthwhile endeavor."
Hunter also said he was hearing that, in addition to reverting to a more owner-favorable proposal by Wednesday, Stern also was planning to cancel games through Christmas if a deal isn't reached by 5 p.m. Such cancellation threats are largely immaterial, but there is no question the talks have arrived at a junction that will test the resolve of hard-line owners and invite the potential for chaos if dissident agents and players formalize their push to decertify by getting 30 percent of players to sign a petition to be filed with the National Labor Relations Board.
"It's either going to be a collision of the radicals or a collision of the rationals," a member of the players' executive committee told CBSSports.com.
In addition to Fisher and the rest of the players' executive committee, the meeting was attended by reps for 29 teams, with the biggest star presence being Carmelo Anthony -- whose extend-and-trade arrangement that brought him from Denver to the Knicks last season the owners are seeking to ban in the next CBA.
But neither Melo nor committee member Chris Paul was the biggest star in the building. That was former President Bill Clinton, whose talents for diplomacy are sorely needed.
"I hope it gets worked out because we all want to see basketball," said Clinton, who didn't participate in the meeting but hugged Fisher afterward while handing out to players copies of his new book -- ironically titled, "Back to Work."
The call from Hunter to Stern to reignite the talks and close the gap on essentially a list of five system concerns that the players have was predicated on Hunter and Fisher saying Tuesday that the players are willing to meet the NBA on the economics of a 50-50 split. When talks broke up early Sunday, the players were asking for a 51 percent share of BRI -- with 1 percent going to a benefits fund for players when they retire.
A person directly involved in the negotiations said the union was prepared to go to 50 percent while seeking a creative way to fund a benefits plan for retirees that doesn't come out of the BRI pie.
"I'm the one who's going to call him," Hunter said. "I'll probably call him tonight to see if we can get together some time tomorrow. ... If he says no, I'll just have to deal with that. I'll be denied the opportunity to talk to David."
Hunter said that with a smile and a joking tone, obviously recognizing that this isn't his first rodeo with Stern. He is making a much more serious bet that Stern has room to negotiate further on the system issues, and based Hunter's hunch that an offer from the players to move down to the league's desired 50-50 split would get that done.
With a risk, Hunter acknowledged.
"It's getting hectic on both sides of the table," Hunter said.
Having negotiated with Stern for 15 years, Hunter passed the hot potato right back to him Tuesday with the hope that his longtime bargaining adversary has enough juice to get hard-line owners to look past the obligatory follow up on the threat of worsening the proposal and put NBA players back on the court -- and people in the seats -- with a few system compromises that the players say they need.
I asked Hunter, knowing Stern for as long as he has, how he expected the commissioner to react to having his bluff called Tuesday.
"I don't know that we've ever called his bluff," Hunter said.
"I think you just did," I replied.
"It's yet to be seen," Hunter said. "My concern and what I'm trying to determine is whether or not David may be a hostage in his own camp. That's what kind of concerns me, what's going on over there. He may not have the sway that he once had. He's been a hell of a commissioner, but I'm not sure."
Considering the stakes, and the pressure he faces from the strident wing of the union that wants to decertify, Hunter was in a frisky mood -- even taking a shot at Hall of Famer Michael Jordan when asked what advice he'd give the now-Charlotte Bobcats owner.
"I'd give him the same advice he gave Abe Pollin," Hunter said, referring to Jordan infamous clash with the late owner during the 1998-99 lockout, when Jordan told him to sell his team if he couldn't make a profit. "He should take his own advice."
Rhetoric aside, talks to save the 2011-12 season have reached critical mass, a time when reason is needed more than ever. And regardless of how and when Stern follows through on his threat Wednesday, the wheels already are in motion to bring the two sides together and finish the deal, now that an economic gap that was once nearly $10 billion over 10 years finally has been closed.
According to a person involved in the talks, the players are prepared to submit a proposal to the league with the 50-50 split owners want and the system changes the players need to make the deal more palatable. Over 10 years, the players' proposal will more than account for the owners' stated economic losses of $300 million a year -- shifting $3.3 billion from players to owners compared to the previous 57 percent share the players received.
In return, the players want the owners to come to them on the system issues. Chief among are sign-and-trades and the size and length of mid-level exceptions for luxury-tax-paying teams; a reconfiguring of the luxury tax "cliff" that teams wading into the tax experience by giving up tax money and having to pay it; the severity of the additional luxury tax for repeat offenders; and the escrow system. The latter point involves the league's proposal to roll over 3 percent per year of the escrow they withhold from player paychecks to account for a possible overage in their share of BRI.
"We’re open-minded about potential compromises on our number," Fisher said. "But there are things in the system that are not up for discussion, that we have to have, in order to be able to get this season going again."
But before that happens, prepare for more foot-stomping, more threats, more rhetoric -- and yes, more asshattery.
The owners have a willing accomplice to negotiate with and deliver them more than the $300 million a year in losses they've spent two years seeking. The players have a union that's preserved a soft cap, guaranteed contracts, existing max contract structures and is trying to finish the job by preserving a healthy mid-level exception for all teams and fight off efforts to corral teams as they wade into the tax and stay over it for three out of five years.
Yet some of those players -- as many as 200, according to reports Tuesday night -- are ready to detonate the talks in favor of a decertification tactic that could jeopardize the entire season and, by the way, has never been successful in the history of professional sports.
It all has the potential to blow the deal to high heaven at the very moment when it is on the one-foot line. And given the chaos that will ensue, those very owners may actually enjoy watching that for a while.
Calm before the storm? This is the storm before the calm. A collision of radicals or a collision of rationals.
Or maybe a little bit of both before it's all over.
Posted on: November 7, 2011 9:44 pm
Edited on: November 7, 2011 9:53 pm
NEW YORK -- As the players' union prepared to host representatives from all 30 teams Tuesday, a person with knowledge of the plans told CBSSports.com that executives from the National Basketball Players Association will be open-minded about whether the league's latest proposal should be put to a vote by the full membership.
The primary purpose of the meeting will be to educate player reps about the details and ramifications of the NBA's 50-50 proposal, which commissioner David Stern has told executive director Billy Hunter in writing that he has until 5 p.m. Wednesday to accept or be faced with a far worse offer. Player reps also will be informed of the other options at their disposal if the union rejects the deal and the league forwards what it is calling its "reset" proposal -- which includes a 47 percent share of revenues for the players, a hard salary cap and rollbacks of existing contracts, among other system restraints that are far worse than those in the standing proposal.
But union officials also expect that player reps will have polled their teammates and will present their views as to whether players, as a whole, want to vote on the deal, reject it, or seek a vote to dissolve the union through decertification and take their fight to the federal courts.
"I'm expecting a diversity of opinions, quite frankly," said the person with knowledge of the format for Tuesday's meeting.
This was the case Monday, as players were active in expressing their opinions to their agents and via social media, with the only consensus being that players are divided on what the next steps should be. Some, like Kevin Martin of the Rockets and Steve Blake of the Lakers, are pushing for a vote. Others, like Cavaliers player rep Anthony Parker, say they're opposed to the deal and would vote against it.
Nothing will be known for sure until the player reps meet with union leaders Tuesday. And to some extent, further conversations will be required between the NBPA and NBA negotiators to clear up certain technical aspects of the proposal -- such as a provision the league has asked for to account for a scenario in which player salaries exceed their 50 percent guarantee by more than the 10 percent escrow withholding in the proposal, up from the previous level of eight percent, sources said.
Indeed, while no meetings between the two sides were scheduled as of Monday night, a person with knowledge of the situation told CBSSports.com that NBPA executives were hopeful that further conversations could be scheduled with the league before the Wednesday deadline.
While union president Derek Fisher and outside counsel Jeffrey Kessler excoriated the league's latest proposal after talks broke down early Sunday and executive committee members are not in favor of presenting it to the rank-and-file for a vote, union negotiators believe that some minor tweaks to unresolved system issues could make the deal more palatable. Among the issues, for example, would be permitting teams above the luxury-tax line to execute sign-and-trade transactions -- a detail the two sides are at odds on despite it only occurring five times during the previous six-year agreement.
Union executives will meet at 1 p.m. Tuesday at a Manhattan hotel with player reps, with all 30 teams expected to be represented either by their reps or alternates.
Posted on: November 7, 2011 1:27 pm
NEW YORK -- As union officials huddled Monday to consider their options in the face of an ultimatum to accept the owners' latest proposal, one such option could be a shift in legal strategy with plenty of risk and reward attached to it.
Rather than waiting for the players to get the necessary signatures to dissolve the union by seeking a time-consuming decertification vote, Billy Hunter could advise commissioner David Stern that, if no further negotiations occur before the Wednesday deadline to accept the owners' deal, he will have no choice but to step aside as executive director of the union.
The legal term for this would be a disclaimer of interest, which would only require a letter from Hunter to Stern advising him that the National Basketball Players Association no longer exists as the bargaining unit for the players.
The advantage of this for the players would be that, once the letter is sent, their attorneys would not have to wait 45-60 days for the National Labor Relations Board to authorize an election to formally dissolve the union. With a disclaimer of interest, the players could almost immediately commence an anti-trust lawsuit against the NBA, said Gabe Feldman, director of the Sports Law Center at Tulane University.
"The owners have threatened to, in some ways, end the negotiations if (the players) don’t agree by Wednesday, because 47 percent is a non-starter -- we all know that," Feldman said. "So the owners have given the players an ultimatum with an artificial deadline, and it may force the players to respond with their own ultimatum. But both are destructive of the negotiation process.
"Clearly, what David Stern has said is designed to push the players to make a concession with the threat of essentially ending the negotiations," Feldman said. "And that’s what the players would be doing by threatening to dissolve the union."
A parallel threat to dissolve the union through a decertification vote already is under way, with players and agents dissatisfied with the union's representation consulting with anti-trust attorneys to weigh the costs and benefits of decertifying. But while a decertification initiated by union members has a better chance of holding up in court as not being a "sham," the disclaimer of interest route is more expeditious and could apply the leverage players are seeking without endangering the entire 2011-12 season.
A key difference, however, is that with a player-initiated decertification, union leadership would remain in power until the election, and thus, negotiations could continue. If Hunter steps aside and dissolves the union voluntarily through a disclaimer of interest, the union would have to reform before negotiations could continue.
"You can't flip a light switch on and off," Feldman said. "It’s a sobering process. Writing a letter one day and tearing up the letter the next day flies in the face of that."
That distinction makes a disclaimer a dangerous legal weapon for the union to implement at this point. The NBA already has sued the NBPA in federal court, seeking declaratory judgment that a disclaimer or decertification on the players' part would be illegal. If the union disclaims, in some ways it would strengthen the league's legal argument that it was planning to dissolve all along. But the union would have a valid counter-argument.
"Billy Hunter could make the argument that dissolving the union was never a strategy until Stern threatened to end the negotiations unless we agreed to every last one of their demands," Feldman said.
As evidence that he never intended to dissolve the union, Hunter could cite the players and agents who have become so enraged with his refusal to do so that they've begun the process of doing it themselves. In fact, for legal purposes, both a disclaimer and decertification could proceed on a parallel basis as a last-resort response to the league's ultimatum, Feldman said.
The biggest legal benefit to dissolving the union through a disclaimer would be that, once the union was transformed into a trade association, the players could almost immediately file an anti-trust lawsuit against the league -- which in theory would open the owners to not only the financial losses of a canceled season, but also anti-trust damages. In all likelihood, the players would file their action in the 9th Circuit in California, where more employee-favorable law exists. Since the league already has pre-emptively sued in the employer-friendly 2nd Circuit in New York, a messy and potentially lengthy jurisdictional battle would then unfold.
And while the disclaimer would be a more expeditious route to antitrust action, it would also be less likely to succeed than a decertification initiated by the players. Courts would be more likely to view a disclaimer as a bargaining tactic, rather than a decision with the true intent to dissolve.
NBPA outside counsel Jeffrey Kessler, who oversaw the NFLPA's disclaimer of interest, "wants to protect not only players in this negotiation but players' ability to use this weapon in the future," Feldman said. "He has to make it appear that this dissolution is a not a sham."
If either of these legal strategies becomes official, the hope of a swift end to the impasse at the bargaining table would be seriously imperiled. So Hunter's best move before Wednesday may be to directly ask Stern for another bargaining session before Wednesday in an effort to close the gap on the remaining system issues so he can bring the deal to the players for a ratification vote. If Stern refused, Hunter could advise him that he will have no choice to send him a disclaimer of interest letter -- and indeed, that even if he doesn't step aside, the players are planning to dissolve the union on their own through decertification.
The question of how Stern and the owners would respond to the players' own ultimatum is a risky and unknown game of roulette that union leaders will have to decide if they want to play.
"It could go either way," Feldman said. "It could cause enough owners to be skittish and want to avoid the risk of anti-trust litigation -- because if they lose there, it’s a huge loss. ... The other side is that it could cause Stern and the owners to say, 'We’re not going to let you manipulate labor law by threatening us with an anti-trust suit and we're going to take a stand.
"The question becomes: Do all of these threats bring the sides closer together," Feldman said, "or push them further apart?"
Posted on: November 6, 2011 2:55 am
Edited on: November 6, 2011 2:03 pm
NEW YORK – With another ultimatum, artificial deadline and accusations of fraud and bad-faith bargaining, the NBA labor talks blew up again early Sunday. This time, they appear to be careening toward a point of no return.
After eight more hours of talks under the direction of a federal mediator, league negotiators delivered a proposal around 1 a.m. ET and informed the players’ association it has until the close of business Wednesday to accept it or receive a far worse deal.
Union attorney Jeffrey Kessler, singled out by David Stern as the one who rejected virtually all the compromises the commissioner said were proposed by mediator George Cohen, described the league’s tactics as “threats” and characterized the NBA’s description of its economic proposal as “fraud.”
“Today is another very sad day for our fans, for our arena workers, our parking-lot attendants, our vendors,” union president Derek Fisher said. “A very frustrating, sad day.”
League negotiators essentially offered the players a 50-50 split of basketball-related income, their obvious target for weeks. The offer was tweaked into the form of a 49-51 percent band for the players’ share – the same band discussed informally Oct. 4 at a key meeting that fell apart over the split of revenues between owners and players.
In the league’s proposal, the players would receive 50 percent of revenues (net about $600 in expense deductions, as in the previous system) if revenues grew as projected – 4 percent a year. Stern and deputy commissioner Adam Silver portrayed the band as capable of delivering a 51 percent share to the players if there was, as Stern described, “significant growth.”
But Kessler -- speaking with Fisher in the union’s press conference in the absence of executive director Billy Hunter, who was “under the weather,” according to an NBPA official – said it would take the “wildest, most unimaginable, favorable projections” for the players to ever receive 51 percent of revenues.
“The proposal that this is a robust deal at 51 is a fraud,” Kessler said. “… You can't get to the top of the band.”
The players, who received 57 percent under the previous six-year deal, proposed a 51-49 split in their favor – with 1 percent going toward a fund for benefits for retired players, such as health care, life insurance and pensions. The league never responded to that proposal, union officials said. By going from their previous proposal in which they would've received 52.5 percent, the players moved about $60 million in the first year of the new deal and nearly $400 million over six years. The owners remained in essentially the same place they’ve been economically since Oct. 4.
“They've been consistent for weeks,” Kessler said.
“We made the moves that we needed to make to get this deal done on the economics,” Fisher said. “It just doesn’t seem to be good enough for this particular group of team owners.”
Stern said the proposal will be on the table until the close of business Wednesday, after which the owners will forward a new proposal to the players offering them 47 percent of BRI and an NHL-style “flex cap,” two items the players previously have rejected.
“Hope springs eternal,” Stern said. “And we would love to see the union accept the proposal that is now on the table.”
But while the economic gap between the sides – once 20 percentage points apart – has now shrunk to 1 percent, the implosion early Sunday was as much related to system issues as money. But looking at those issues makes it cruelly implausible that they’d lose a season and squander billions of dollars over their differences.
"With the system issues that we felt like were left open, that we felt like were significant, that we must have in order to get a deal done, they did not go very far at all in trying to close that gap," Fisher said. "And we just did not get the sense that they really had the intent on coming in here tonight to get this deal done. Because there was every opportunity to do it. We were prepared to stay here until the sun came up to get this deal done."
The two sides could not bridge the gap on key aspects of the luxury tax system, specifically the penalty for teams that stay over the tax for three years out of five. The league reduced its offer from $1.50 additional tax for such teams to $1, while the union is holding firm at 50 cents additional tax on the first $10 million over the tax level and $1 after that. The punitive impact would only be felt by a handful of teams that historically have spent at those levels.
They also differ over the length and amount of mid-level exceptions that can be used by tax-paying teams. The players want tax-payers to be able to sign players to four-year mid-level deals starting at $5 million every other year. The league proposed two-year mid-level deals starting at $2.5 million every other year.
Non-tax-paying teams would be able to sign players to mid-level deals starting at $5 million, with the length alternating between four and three years each season under the owners’ proposal. The players want straight four-year mid-level deals for non-tax-payers.
The luxury-tax “cliff” experienced by tax teams, by which they felt the full brunt of going slightly over the tax level by losing all the tax money they would’ve received had they stayed under, also was addressed in the owners’ proposal. The league offered that such teams would receive half the tax money squandered by going from being a tax receiver to a tax payer.
The league has not relented on its insistence that tax-paying teams be forbidden to execute sign-and-trade transactions, which the union argues -- when coupled with the other system restrictions -- would dry up the market for free agents in a way that imitates a hard team salary cap.
"They want it all," Kessler said. "They want the system where tax payers will never be in the marketplace and that for repeat tax payers, it's going to be like a hard salary cap. And those deals are not acceptable for players today, and it's not acceptable for future generations of players. ... The players will not be intimidated."
Nonetheless, the players now find themselves at a crossroads that could determine whether there is a 2011-12 season by Wednesday. Can Fisher and Hunter, notably absent from the post-meeting news conference as Kessler fanned the flames, determine whether they can sell essentially a 50-50 deal to more than half the union membership? A deal with no hard cap, with guaranteed contracts, with mid-level deals scaled back mostly for tax-paying teams, and with salaries rising to nearly $3 billion in 10 years despite an initial 12 percent reduction?
If not, the union appears almost certain to dissolve – either through a decertification petition or a more expeditious but legally riskier disclaimer of interest – either of which would throw the talks into chaos and imperil the entire season.
“We’re not going to talk about other options,” Kessler said.
Stern said the threat of decertification is “not an issue that we're focusing on at this point.”
“We are trying to make a deal with the National Basketball Players' Association,” he said. “They are the duly authorized representative of the NBA players. That's a good thing, and we hope to make a deal with them.”
Fisher said he would communicate with the players and "assess our situation. … But right now, we’ve been given the ultimatum. And our answer is, that’s not acceptable to us."
In the end, the truest words spoken early Sunday morning came from Kessler, who said the owners' tactics were "not happening on Derek Fisher's watch. It's not happening on Billy Hunter's watch. It's not happening on the watch of this executive committee."
If the players successfully decertified, none of the aforementioned would be in power.
A decertification petition requiring the signatures of 30 percent of union membersship would put the union on approximately a 60-day clock before an election is held to disband it -- and that's only if the National Labor Relations Board authorizes the election. Typically, the agency does not when a union has an unfair labor practices charge pending.
The mere signing of the petition by 30 percent of the union would not by itself cease negotiations since the union would remain in power until the election, which wouldn't happen before January -- if at all.
That leaves two months for cooler heads to prevail. But really, the stopwatch has been set for four days -- 96 hours to spare chaos. Of all the inflammatory words spoken after this latest fiasco, the words "best and final offer" were never among them.
That's legal mumbo-jumbo for this: There's still time to end the asshattery, if everyone's heads return to a place where oxygen is available.
The clock is ticking.
Posted on: November 3, 2011 7:01 pm
Edited on: November 3, 2011 9:56 pm
NEW YORK -- Declaring their unity and determination not to accept a bad deal just to save the season, officials from the National Basketball Players Association said Thursday they will meet again with league negotiators this weekend in hopes of reviving the stalled labor talks.
Bargaining will resume Saturday after NBPA executive director Billy Hunter called NBA commissioner David Stern and asked if he wanted to "take another stab at it."
“I don’t know that we’re going to accomplish much, but we’re going to meet,” Hunter said. “The only way we can get a deal is by meeting.”
The talks, which collapsed yet again last Friday over the contentious split of basketball-related income (BRI), were reignited after federal mediator George Cohen called Hunter this week. Cohen, who excused himself from the negotiations after they broke down Oct. 20, offered to “resurrect his services,” Hunter said.
Hunter said the union is fine with Cohen rejoining the talks, but was waiting for Stern to give the go-ahead. In any event, the two sides will reconvene Saturday in Manhattan with “no preconditions, none at all,” Hunter said. “I think it’s not wise or prudent for us to … let huge gaps of time go by and let the clock run and not meet. Because then we become more entrenched in our respective positions.”
UPDATE: Those positions became even more crucial, and the stakes were raised higher than ever, when Yahoo Sports reported that as many as 50 players were part of a conference call Thursday with an antitrust attorney to discuss decertification. It was one of two conference calls involving players held this week without the knowledge of NBPA officials, Yahoo reported.
Several All-Stars were included on Thursday’s call, in which participants reportedly drew a line in the sand at 52 percent of BRI for the players. If union negotiators dropped below that percentage, and/or the remaining system issues went the league’s way, it would be cause for a rogue decertification vote by players frustrated with the enormous concessions the union already has made, Yahoo reported.
Unwittingly within that prism of chaos, the NBPA's three-hour strategy meeting, attended by Hunter, union president Derek Fisher and members of the players’ executive committee, took on the distinct tone of a damage-control session once a small group of reporters was led into the room. Hunter said the union executives and players had spent only 15 minutes total this week -- including Thursday’s meeting -- addressing reports of a rift between he and Fisher, but spent more time than that addressing the reports to the media.
Fisher denied having unauthorized discussions with league negotiators in which he reportedly told them he could sell a 50-50 deal to the players, and Hunter denied having a confrontation with Fisher on the matter – as reported last weekend by FOXSports.com. Union vice presidents Keyon Dooling, Maurice Evans and Matt Bonner weighed in with impassioned support of Fisher, whom Dooling called “the best president that we’ve ever had as a union.”
“I think the questions need to start being directed toward Mr. Stern and the owners as to why this gap, if it's so insignificant, hasn’t been closed by them,” Evans said.
The owners were formally offering the players a 50-50 split after about $600 million in expense reductions previously calculated under the CBA that expired July 1. But Hunter, explaining for the first time why he walked out of last Friday’s bargaining session, said the league was attempting to use those system issues to “horse trade” from a 47 percent offer to the players up to 50 percent. And Hunter also said he’s heard “rumors” that when the two sides reconvene Saturday, the league may come back with an offer that is less than the previous proposal of 47 percent – which hadn’t officially been the owners’ position since at least Oct. 4.
According to multiple sources familiar with both sides’ negotiating strategy, the pivot point for Saturday’s resumption in talks hinges on the remaining system issues that are crucial to getting the players on board with a further compromise on BRI. Primarily, they are the owners’ proposal to forbid luxury tax-paying teams from using exceptions such as the Bird and mid-level and engaging in sign-and-trade deals; the luxury tax “cliff” that magnifies the expense for a team wading into the tax because of the swing that exists between receiving and paying tax money; and an increased tax penalty for repeat offenders, or teams that stay above the tax line for multiple years.
“It’s difficult to peg the number without knowing what comes with it, in terms of the system,” Fisher said. “And it’s extremely difficult to fully negotiate a system without knowing what the split will be. I think that’s why it’s gotten so hard and so dug in here in the last couple weeks.
“I don’t think any of us can begin to speculate on what our group – in particular, this group sitting at the table and our larger body – will be willing to agree to,” Fisher said. “We have a feel for what we need to present a fair deal.”
It is possible that the mere threat of decertificaiton, which would all but ensure a lost season of revenues for the owners, could provide a much-needed trigger point to move the negotiations forward Saturday. But it also has the potential to further fracture the union, pitting star players and their high-profile agents against the rank-and-file who are more willing to accept the best deal they can get now to salvage close to a full season of earnings.
“I don't think the battle is within our union,” Dooling said. “That's not where the rift is.”
But with various players tweeting this week about a desire to accept the best offer the union can get now in order to save the season, Fisher and Hunter are in an extraordinary position: defusing that angst and presenting a unified front while also holding the line on making significant further concessions when every negotiated aspect of the deal to this point has gone heavily in the owners’ favor.
The meeting Thursday at the union’s Harlem offices offered a window into the tension, frustration and responsibility that rests with Fisher and Hunter to close this deal in a way that satisfies current players who want to return to the court and others who will be affected by it for a decade or longer.
With Hunter being pressured by agents and star players who want him to hold firm at his current proposal of 52.5 percent – down from 57 in the previous deal – and with Stern also feeling Heat from hard-line owners, it is unclear whether the two men who ended the 1998-99 lockout with a private, all-night negotiating session have another season-saving deal in them. Or more important, whether they have the same authority each enjoyed in January of ’99, when they emerged with a handshake agreement on the very morning when Stern had threatened to cancel the rest of the season.
“I thought it was appropriate,” Hunter said. “I thought that we had given enough. … The signals that I thought I was getting, or that we were getting, were that they would be receptive to moving off their number. And when they went back to 47, then all of a sudden it became clear to me that that wasn’t the case.”
“Our platform has been reasonableness,” NBPA general counsel Ron Klempner said. “We're looking to come to them and to meet them. And just as people are asking us, ‘Well, the difference is so small, shouldn’t you just cut it and meet them halfway?’ The same thing is on them, and it's just not worth it for them. They really do have to come and meet us halfway.”
For this reason and others, it would be irresponsible to characterize a conversation by Fisher or any other union official about a compromised split of BRI since the number cannot be separated from the system issues that go with it – conversations that Fisher vehemently denied having, even though they would’ve been well within his rights as the union president. Indeed, Hunter acknowledged Thursday that NBPA outside counsel Jeffrey Kessler broached the topic of a 50-50 split on Sept. 8 as a way to feel out whether league negotiators were inclined to discuss a split in that “zone.” But to date, the players have not made a formal offer beneath their requested share of 52.5 percent.
“I think the biggest misperception is that it’s only about two percentage points,” committee member Roger Mason said. “Because it’s about much more than 50 or 52 or whatever. There’s still a system that hasn’t been addressed.”
Posted on: November 1, 2011 3:18 pm
While sources confirmed Tuesday that the NBA and National Basketball Players Association are discussing the possibility of bringing federal mediator George Cohen back into the bargaining process, we already have learned that this is no cure-all for the lockout.
Cohen spent more than 24 hours over two days refereeing the talks last month, only to see them blow up over the contentious issue of the BRI split. The same thing happened without Cohen on Friday, and while sources believe union chief Billy Hunter wouldn't have been permitted to walk away from the table with a line in the sand drawn at a 52-48 split in favor of the players, it's not clear whether Cohen would've been able to elicit enough compromise to keep the talks going.
So while bringing the mediator back into the room couldn't hurt, I have a better idea. To borrow a phrase from commissioner David Stern: mediator, schmediator. Breaking the impasse and securing a handshake on a new CBA so the NBA can reopen for business really only requires two people to be in the room:
1) Stern, and 2) Hunter.
It's time for the two men whose job it is to secure a deal to get in a room together and figure it out. It's time for Stern to tell Hunter how much wiggle room he has on his owners' 50-50 proposal, provided Hunter is willing to compromise on the Big Three system issues that remain. It's time for Hunter to tell Stern exactly what he needs to be able to sell a 50-50 or 51-49 deal to his players.
It's time for Stern and Hunter to throw each other a life raft so they can both paddle ashore holding both fists aloft in the universal gesture of victory. (Although, to do that, they'd need someone else to paddle. So they can bring Cohen in to propel the boat during the victory parade.)
This is how the 1998-99 lockout ended. Stern and Hunter ended it. On the day Stern had set for the rest of the season to be canceled, the two deal-makers pulled an all-nighter, and emerged on the morning of Jan. 7 to shake hands and end the 204-day lockout.
This one has endured a little more than half that time, but there's no need for any more. There are two people who can end this, and each one needs to tell his constituents that he intends to do just that. Stern and Hunter have been negotiating against each other for 15 years. They don't need a mediator, just an empty room.
Posted on: October 27, 2011 10:52 pm
Edited on: October 28, 2011 12:58 am
NEW YORK – Setting up the next and most pivotal day in the NBA labor talks, negotiators will convene Friday with what commissioner David Stern described as “resolve” to finally close the gap and agree to the two key elements of a new collective bargaining agreement: the system and the split of revenues.
“I can’t tell you we’ve resolved anything in such a big way, but there’s an element of continuity, familiarity and I would hope trust that would enable us to look forward to (Friday), where we anticipate there will be some important and additional progress or not,” Stern said in a news conference Thursday night after a 7 1-2 hour bargaining session at a luxury Manhattan hotel.
“We’re looking forward to seeing whether something good can be made to happen,” Stern said.
After spending 22 1-2 hours over two days hammering out many of the details of a new system that the league believes will foster more competitive balance, the moment of truth has arrived – for the third time this month. Two times prior, the negotiators expressed confidence they were within striking distance of one or the other key issue – the system or the split – only to have the talks fall apart in spectacular fashion.
But according to several people involved in the negotiations or briefed on them, there has been a noticeable uptick in urgency to finally end the nearly four-month lockout, with the last realistic possibility to salvage games already canceled – and avoid canceling more – set to evaporate without a deal in the next several days.
In a moment of levity that also pointed to the importance of Friday’s bargaining session, Stern chimed in from the back of the room during union executive director Billy Hunter’s news conference when Hunter was asked when the important, difficult moves would be made to finally close the deal.
“Well, David Stern is sitting back there,” Hunter said. “I think he can probably tell you. Hopefully, sometime tomorrow.”
And right on cue, Stern shouted jovially from the back of the room, “Tomorrow!”
In another important moment from Thursday night’s separate news conferences – held only 18 hours after the 4 a.m. ET affairs earlier in the day – Stern was asked if the league was prepared to make another economic move Friday if necessary to get the deal done. The two sides are trying to agree on the framework of a new system of player contracts and team payrolls before proceeding with the final, most important, and interrelated piece of the negotiation: the split of BRI.
“We’re prepared to negotiate over everything,” Stern said. “We’re looking forward to it.”
The most recent formal proposals have the owners offering the players a 50-50 split of revenues, while the players have proposed a 52.5 percent share. The players received 57 percent under the previous six-year CBA. The split of revenues was not discussed Wednesday or Thursday, the parties said.
“We remain apart on both, so from that standpoint, we’re disappointed,” Silver said.
Hunter does not share Silver’s view that the split and system structure are unrelated, and those two viewpoints must collide one last time Friday with urgency to reach an agreement and preserve a full 82-game schedule at its highest point since the lockout began July 1.
“You definitely have to have some agreement on the system,” Hunter said. “Because if the system’s not right, then as we’ve indicated before, the number’s not going to work. And so the two are interrelated.”
But while there remain significant details to be resolved over a more punitive luxury tax system and other rules governing trades and contracts, Stern’s demeanor was decidedly upbeat after a second consecutive day of trying to bridge the bargaining gap in a small-group format that clearly has gained traction and momentum.
The rosters of negotiators were essentially the same as the 15-hour session held Wednesday into the early morning hours of Thursday. Stern, Silver, deputy general counsel Dan Rube, general counsel Richard Buchanan, labor relations committee chairman Peter Holt of the Spurs, Board of Governors chairman Glen Taylor of the Timberwolves, and James Dolan of the Knicks were joined by Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who was flying through New York on his way home from Paris. Other than the absence of union economist Kevin Murphy (who will be present Friday) and the addition of vice president Roger Mason, the players’ contingent was intact with Hunter, president Derek Fisher, vice president Mo Evans, general counsel Ron Klempner and attorney Yared Alula.