NBA Lockout 2011: Dysfunction Is Mostly In Players Corner, Not Owners

Union President Billy Hunter and Players Union Representative Derek Fisher are out to save their own skin as the walls begin to close in on them. This has become about self preservation and not about representing the best interests of the Players Union. Both need to step aside and allow a vote on the owners proposal before they lose total control of the situation.

The NBA has reached a crucial breaking point in it's negotiations toward a new Collective Bargaining Agreement.  With negotiations seemingly at a standstill and with the league's latest offer considered a drop dead "take it or leave it" offer, the players association has a decision to make. 

However, at this point, Union Director Billy Hunter and Players Association President Derek Fisher have made that decision for their players, rather than letting the collective group vote on whether or not the terms are acceptable.

It's just another sad power grab by Fisher, Hunter, and a collection of the most well paid, twilight of their career superstars, chief among them Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett.

For all the media's attempts to find cracks in the owners resolve, the real cracks lie within the Players Union. The only real cracks in the ownership stem from the fact that a number of them actually think that the deal that is on the table is actually TOO generous, and would prefer to tighten the purse strings even further. It's a credit to commissioner David Stern that he has been able to negotiate with the owners he represents, and convince them to present a deal that isn't perfect to all of them. Stern has done an admirable job representing the best interests of the collective group of owners.

On the other side, the Players Union is a mess. Agents are constantly whispering in their clients ears about how "bad" this deal is for them, not out of some sense of genuine concern about their clients well being, but out of self preservation, as their own earning power would be diminished along with their ability to negotiate trades to more high profile markets. 

The Players Union also has players like Garnett, Pierce, Kevin Durant, and Deron Williams treating the situation like they're trying to protect a two point lead late in overtime of a playoff game rather than a business negotiation. This particular group of players is out to protect the incredibly small minority of superstar players that want to be able to move to whatever warm weather city or high profile market they choose at the first opportunity regardless of the ramifications on the small market team they leave behind.

And in the middle of this giant mess are Fisher and Hunter, who have done little to represent the best interests of the majority of the union, the non-superstar level players.  Fisher and Hunter are under tremendous pressure to make a deal because all around them, the sharks are swimming and they smell blood.  There is a great deal of power in being at the head of the union, and neither is interested in surrendering it, but at this point it almost seems inevitable, even if they haven't realized it yet.

The offer that David Stern has put on the table calls for a restricted salary cap that would severely penalize teams paying the luxury tax, and a BRI (basketball related revenue) range of 49-51 percent depending on yearly league revenues.  This means that the players will be paid roughly 50 cents out of every dollar every season.  According to Fisher, it's a deal that he can't "in good conscience" take to his constituents for a vote.

The reality of course, is that it's not that he CAN'T take it to the players for a vote, it's that he WON'T.  Why?  The players that have been vocal about not accepting this deal are the minority, players like Pierce, KG, etc.  The reality though, is that while those players have made more money than 90% of the rest of the league combined and can afford to hold out in hopes of a better deal, a significant portion of the rest of the league simply wants to get back to playing basketball.  The guess here is that if this deal were taken to the players today, it would pass, probably with flying colors, the lockout would end, and games would begin in three weeks with an abbreviated 60-70 game schedule.

My opinion that this deal would be passed was bolstered in the last few days by Lakers guard Steve Blake, as he has been quietly canvassing players to push their team reps to allow a vote on the current offer.  Blake is a true majority member of the union, having made less than $15 million over his career, and an example of a guy who simply wants to play ball. Even Kobe Bryant, perhaps sensing this could be a lost year in his twilight, has come on board calling for the players to vote.

If that were to be the case, Fisher and Hunter would be made to look like the bumbling idiots that they've proven themselves to be.  The media would skewer them for not representing the best interests of the collective union, for battling so hard against the owners for concessions that weren't really needed and thus dragging the process out for no reason other than their own warped sense of morality.  Ultimately, their statures would be weakened, and when the time came to negotiate another deal 10 years from now, neither of these fools would be around to do it.

Now consider the alternative.  If those two stand on their principles and refuse to let the voices of their constituents be heard before Wednesday, the owners have indicated that they will no longer be willing to allow David Stern to make the types of concessions that they've allowed to this point.  They will return to their original offer of a 47-53 BRI split and will push for an end to the luxury tax and the institution of a "flex cap" (read: a hard cap) that would essentially eliminate any and all advantages that the big market teams like the Lakers, Knicks, and Heat have over their competitors in Milwaukee, Charlotte, Utah, etc.  In effect, the offer is going to get much much worse, and the situation will spiral wildly out of control.

The Players Union will no doubt file to decertify as a union with the NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) and take the NBA to court in an attempt to do what the NFL Players Union was unable to do this summer: argue that the owners did not negotiate in good faith.  A claim they are almost certain to lose.  Were that to happen, Fisher and Hunter would almost immediately be stripped of all their power in these negotiations, and the season would go up in smoke.  Worse than that, the players would almost certainly lose in court as they have even less of a case than the NFL players did. After that inevitability, the deal they get in order to play the 2012-2013 season would be even worse than the flex cap and the 47-53 split of BRI that will be coming down the pike next week.

In any event, Derek Fisher and Billy Hunter are finished as representatives of the NBA Players Union.  They've spent far too much time prattling about keeping things the way they are with no real concept of the overall health of the league and have allowed players with no business experience and no real stake in the outcome to hijack these negotiations.  The potential of being at the head of a Players Union that wouldn't allow a vote among its constituents to avoid losing the first season to a work stoppage in NBA history is a stain that neither wants on their reputations.  Ask baseball how well that worked out in 1994 when the World Series was cancelled.  

David Stern has kept his hardline owners at bay throughout the process in the hopes of saving the season, it's time Fisher and Hunter swallowed their pride and put the interests of the majority above the interests of a vocal minority.  Forget about KG, forget about Paul Pierce and forget about the others who have no real stake in the end result.  Put the deal to a vote, and let's get back to basketball, before it's too late.

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