Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Thump.
That's the sound of the bus backing up and rolling over Billy Hunter.
On Monday, Hunter, as executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, announced that the players union would be disbanding so that the players could file multiple antitrust lawsuits against the NBA. That bold move, which came as a surprise to many and potentially could lead to the cancellation of the entire 2011-2012 season, has brought his predecessor out of the woodwork.
In an interview with USA Today on Thursday, Charles Grantham, the executive director of the NBPA from 1988-1995, said that the NBA players should be playing games right now and not chasing the possibility of legal victories while missing paychecks.
"Today, we spend too much time in the court, with too many lawyers. … Instead of having 10 lawyers and an economist you should probably have 10 CPAs or forensic accountants and two lawyers," said Grantham, a guest lecturer on professional sports negotiations at Seton Hall's Stillman School of Business. "In this case, (the players are) looking to use the law to gain leverage, to get a better business deal, when, in fact, the negotiations that should be taking place is with regard to how you divide that (every) $100."You can just see NBA commissioner David Stern and deputy commissioner Adam Silver opening up their newspaper on Friday morning and breaking out into a synchronized Dougie. The reverse equivalent of these comments would be if a former NBA commissioner held a press conference to call the hard-line owners greedy while admitting that their goal of improving competitive balance is a total crock and is actually just a poor excuse for drastically limiting free agency.
"My philosophy was to keep the guys working, because they lose income that's not recoverable," he said. "They're employees. They're not partners. … Let's not get this twisted, (players) don't sit in the boardroom."
Disagreeing with the controversial decision to disclaim the union is one thing, but to suggest that the players should have taken whatever deal they could get to save their paychecks -- even the extremely owner-friendly one presented to them last week -- is another thing entirely. Grantham clearly advocates both stances here. This is Bruce Bowen-esque undercutting we are witnessing right now. Watch your ankles, Billy!
The key word in Grantham's comments is "philosophy", and it's easy to see the many places where he likely would have departed from the path Hunter has chosen. Hunter, remember, admitted early on that the possibility of losing part or all of a season was very likely, given how steep the league's demands were. If the players' goal had simply been to negotiate and then accept the best possible deal with the express purpose of not missing any games this season, the last three or four years would have unfolded quite differently.
The union would have met Stern's demands for a financial overhaul with capitulation, rather than threats of decertification, early in the process. That would likely have meant sacrificing the Basketball Related Income issue, the most important one to hard-line owners, to focus on the system issues they felt were most in need of preservation. Then, the union would have acted with much greater haste in scheduling meetings throughout 2011, looking to chip away at whatever minor victories they might have been able to salvage while publicly preaching that they were operating for the good of the sport. The union would have publicly sided with the league in decrying any individual agents who dissented from the approach or tried to exert influence on the negotiating process. There would have been no months taken off this summer, no bombastic rhetoric about plantation overseers, no need for a federal mediator, and certainly no preemptive legal filings to set the table for later lawsuits.
The final deal produced by that path would have been, without question, a landslide for the owners, an even worse deal than the most recent offer that the players rejected this week. But, no one can dispute that it would have been better than nothing, which is what the players are stuck with right now.
That said, the only way to judge whether Grantham's approach would have been better is to compare the final deal the players agree to, less the salaries lost during the fight, to the hypothetical deal that we've just laid out. If the two sides resume negotiations and are able to save a portion of the 2011-2012 season, there's a good chance that will mean that the league agreed to additional concessions along the way. That could mean Hunter's brass tacks approach won out. If the season is lost entirely, though, there's virtually no argument to be made that Grantham's save-the-paychecks-no-matter-what approach would have produced a worse situation for the players once all those lost salaries are gone for good. The only Hail Mary possibility there: a major victory in court for the players, but that seems awfully improbable.
In sum: it's still too soon to authoritatively second-guess Hunter. But the time for that is coming very quickly, possibly in as few as six weeks. Grantham, though, isn't bothering to wait. He sounds happy to get on the record with his doubts and philosophical differences right now, when things look bleakest. That's a bad sign for Hunter, the players and this process as a whole.