|The former director of the MLBPA, Fehr recently guided NHL players through a lockout as head of the union. (Getty)|
As NBA players prepare to make a decision on union chief Billy Hunter's future at All-Star weekend in Houston in less than two weeks, several influential agents already are privately discussing a possible successor: longtime sports union leader Don Fehr.
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Fehr, currently the executive director of the NHL Players Association, is the early preferred pick among multiple agents with enough clout to sway a significant portion of union membership, CBSSports.com has learned.
Fehr, who also has served as executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, declined to comment when reached through the NHLPA Monday because Hunter remains in place as executive director. A person familiar with Fehr's thinking told CBSSports.com that the hockey union chief is happy in his job and "has no plans to leave his position." His contract, however, gives either side the option to terminate it with 60 days notice, sources said.
Hunter, 70, was placed on indefinite leave Friday by an interim executive committee of the National Basketball Players Association organized by his nemesis, union president Derek Fisher. The move came two weeks after Hunter's leadership and actions as executive director were impugned in a 469-page report released after a nine-month investigation of the NBPA's finances and business practices.
Hunter's attorney subsequently released a statement questioning the fairness of his client's leave and asserting that the interim executive committee lacked such authority under the union's constitution and bylaws.
NBA players are set to meet Feb. 15-17 during All-Star weekend in Houston, where they are expected to fill any vacant player representative posts and elect as many as seven new members to the executive committee. The players and their officers must then vote on whether Hunter's contract as executive director -- which the NBPA report found was not properly approved -- should be honored or terminated.
The report detailing Hunter's transgressions suggested that only two members of the committee charged with overseeing the executive director and approving all significant NBPA actions are in place: Fisher and vice president Matt Bonner of the Spurs. The other seven posts should be considered vacant, the report said, based on terms that have lapsed or office holders who have not been with an NBA team this season.
Hunter was placed on leave in a unanimous vote by an interim committee of five players. They were Fisher and Bonner, plus three previous officers who are still active in the NBA: Chris Paul, James Jones and Roger Mason, Jr.
Fehr, 64, bargained for the players during the NHL's recently concluded lockout and also presided over the MLBPA when baseball lost the entire postseason, including the World Series, during the 1994-95 player strike. When NHL owners imposed a lockout last September, Fehr earned the dubious honor of being the only U.S. sports union director to be involved in a work stoppage in two sports.
Indeed, Fehr has been called the "Work-Stoppage Warrior" in sports labor circles, as six of the eight collective bargaining negotiations he's been involved with involved work stoppages.
But Fehr's firebrand leadership -- and his successful challenge of collusion among baseball owners in the 1980s -- is precisely what a small but powerful group of hawkish agents is seeking in a new leader to engage NBA commissioner-elect Adam Silver in the next round of collective bargaining. Each side can opt out of the current CBA -- ratified after a 149-day lockout in 2011 -- on July 1, 2017.
"He's the guy," one of the influential agents said.
"He is somebody who would be formidable," another agent said. "He would go tooth-and-nail on everything."
Days before Hunter was placed on leave, powerful agent Arn Tellem released a letter to his clients in which he assailed Hunter's actions as detailed in the NBPA report and also took aim at his bargaining tactics. It is not known whether Tellem is one of the agents supporting a possible Fehr candidacy, but one agent familiar with his thinking said, "I know for a fact Arn would support that in his sleep."
The desire among some in the agent community to recruit Fehr is premature because Fehr remains under contract with the NHLPA and NBA players have yet to make a final decision on Hunter. If Hunter is ousted, NBA players will be urged by their representatives to engage in what one agent called "a professional process" for selecting a successor.
While Fehr can terminate his contract with the NHLPA, a person familiar with the arrangement told CBSSports.com that the measure was put in place to protect the players during the lockout, in the event they no longer wanted Fehr representing them. While Fehr has privately expressed no desire to leave his post, the person with knowledge of his plans said Fehr would be open to advising the NBA players during their leadership transition if, in fact, players decide to part ways permanently with Hunter.
In addition to Fehr, several other names have surfaced as potential replacements for Hunter, including longtime agent Bill Strickland; Richard Berthelsen, who recently retired after 40 years with the NFL Players Association, including 29 years as general counsel; and Steve Mills, the former president of Madison Square Garden Sports.
There has been widespread speculation that Fisher, whose complaints about Hunter resulted in the nine-month review of the union's business practices, is positioning himself for a run at the directorship. But those close to Fisher have said that's not the case.