NEW YORK – The NBA labor talks took on a poisonous tone Monday, with each side lobbing rhetoric about the other not being willing to negotiate. The coup de grace came shortly before 6 p.m., from commissioner David Stern.
Standing in a midtown hotel lobby after a nearly three-hour farce of a bargaining session – the first between the two sides since owners imposed a lockout on July 1 – Stern fielded one last question in a terse and decidedly glum media session. After saying, “I don’t feel optimistic about the players’ willingness to engage in a serious way,” Stern was asked if he believes the players are bargaining in good faith, or not.
The grim-faced commissioner thought about it for several seconds and said, “I would say not. Thank you.”
And with those comments, Stern’s most direct public assault on the players during the more than two years of bargaining, the NBA lockout took its next step toward all-out legal warfare.
The National Basketball Players Association already has filed a charge with the National Labor Relations Board alleging, among other things, that the owners have failed to bargain in good faith. The players’ hope is that this charge will result in a formal complaint from the NLRB, and then, an injunction from a federal judge reinstating the terms of the previous collective bargaining agreement. Short of decertification by the union, this would be the quickest path for the players to legally pressure the owners to back down from their demands of massive salary cuts as a cure for $300 million annual losses by the league.
With Stern firing back Monday that it’s the players who are not bargaining in good faith, he set the stage for a possible counter-charge by the league with the NLRB on the subject of good-faith bargaining. Such a legal strategy, which league officials would not confirm Monday as being on the table, could blunt the impact of the players’ charge and – more importantly – drag the lockout precariously into territory where it would be impossible to save all of the 2011-12 season.
As a point of reference, the NFL owners filed a similar charge with the NLRB in February, and that sport’s lockout ended before the board even finished investigating it. NBPA attorney Larry Katz has said he is hopeful that the NLRB will rule on the union’s complaint in the next 30-60 days. Training camps are supposed to open in about 60 days.
“I think it’s fair to say that we’re in the same place as we were 30 days ago,” Stern said. “And we agreed we’d be in touch to schedule some additional meetings.”
Asked why that would be necessary, given the lack of progress, Stern said, “There’s always a reason for more meetings because that’s the only way you’ll ultimately get to a deal, at the negotiating table. You never know, but right now we haven’t seen any movement.”
Earlier, NBPA president Derek Fisher accused Stern, deputy commissioner Adam Silver and the owners present Monday – San Antonio’s Peter Holt and Minnesota’s Glen Taylor – of saying one thing in the negotiating sessions and publicly and delivering quite another message by refusing to alter their proposal.
“I think Peter and Glen Taylor, Mr. Stern, Adam Silver are articulating certain things in the room, expressing their desire to get a deal done,” Fisher said. “But where their proposal lies makes it hard to believe that.”
Informed of Fisher’s comments, which echo the NLRB charge about failing to bargain in good faith, stern said, “He’s entitled to draw his own conclusion. We have absolutely the opposite take on it.”
While Fisher expressed optimism about “restarting this process,” Stern was asked what may have occurred Monday that gave him encouragement.
“Nothing,” he said.
The two sides agree on one thing, if nothing else: They’ll attempt to schedule at least one bargaining session in the next couple of weeks, with the ultimate goal of engaging in talks for consecutive days before Sept. 1. At that point, the league will be entering what essentially is a two-week window when it must begin contemplating the postponement of training camps and the cancelation of preseason games.
“There was a lot of discussion, a lot of ideas being thrown around,” said Fisher, adding that one irrefutable fact is becoming “clearer and clearer” about the owners’ position.
“What the bottom line is, is what the bottom line is,” Fisher said.
Stern disagreed, saying the owners’ offer of $1.4 billion in revenues to the players – a more than 33 percent pay cut in their initial proposal -- has consistently increased, and most recently was at $2 billion.
“We’ve made several offers, but we don’t feel significant movement back,” Stern said. “As we pointed out to the players, their last offer, 30 days ago, was to take their (average) salaries from $5 million to $7 million over a six-year period. So there’s still a very wide gap between us.”
The players dispute Stern’s repeated portrayal of their proposal, which they say starts off with a reduction in the players’ percentage of revenues from 57 percent to 54.3 percent in the first year of a six-year deal that would slow the growth of salaries by about $100 million a year.
Stern went so far as to use concessions made by NFL players in ending that sport’s lockout as justification for the NBA’s demands.
“From where we sit, we’re looking at a league that was the most profitable in sports that became more profitable by virtue of concessions from their players with an average salary of $2 million,” Stern said. “Our average salary is $5 million, we’re not profitable, and we just can’t seem to get over the gap that separates us.”
What Stern missed – and perhaps Fisher, too – was a moment in the Omni Berkshire Hotel lobby that summed up the sad state of affairs better than either man could. As Fisher addressed the media, a young boy walked by and said excitedly to his father, “Dad, that’s Derek Fisher!”
As his father fumbled for his camera to capture a moment more inglorious than he knew, the boy said, “This must be about the NBA lockout.”
And it’s only going to get worse from here, for kids like that.