Thursday, November 3rd, 2011...12:14 pm

Another Wrinkle on the NBA Labor Dispute

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There has been some dissension in the ranks of the NBA Players Association in recent days. It began with reports questioning the loyalty of President Derek Fisher; he was alleged to have had a “secret” meeting with NBA officials in which he compromised their position by suggesting that the parties agree on a 50/50 split of Basketball Related Income. BRI, we remember, is the major sticking point in the negotiation with the Union making it clear they do not wish to go below 52/48 split in favor of the players. Yesterday, the situation got even more interesting when longtime NBA veteran Jerry Stackhouse strongly criticized Fisher and Union head Billy Hunter in an ESPN interview. A few excerpts:

  • “But I don’t want him negotiating my contract. I want an agent who knows the lingo negotiating my contract. Derek Fisher, he doesn’t negotiate his own contract. He has an agent. So why would I want him negotiating something even bigger than his contract? This [Collective Bargaining Agreement] is something more important to everybody”
  • “We don’t do that [negotiate contracts or make business decisions]. Players are emotional. Players get emotional. So no, I don’t necessarily, particularly want Derek Fisher or any of the executive committee negotiating a contract for me.”

This brings up an interesting dynamic that is almost always present in sports labor negotiations: the owners and the league are much better equipped to negotiate a complex labor agreement than the players. Of course, the Union employs its own lawyers, but its executive committee is compromised of NBA players. That committee is who makes the substantive decisions. They decide whether 50/50 is appropriate. Not to offend any professional athletes, but many of these individuals have not even completed their college educations. Kevin Garnett has been intimately involved in this negotiation, and he didn’t even attend a single day of college. I’m sure he is a bright guy but there is no way he has the skills and ability to effectively negotiate against seasoned NBA executives and lawyers. There is always a degree of self-interest involved, but it seems clear that executive and lawyers, whose job it is to evaluate the economic strength of business deals. The players job is, obviously, to play. It’s implausible to expect the players to be properly prepared for these negotiations.

This is true throughout professional sports. Labor relations within sports are different than within other industries for several reasons, this being one. It’s also different because the NBA is not a single entity, as an airline would be in their labor negotiations. The NBA is compromised of 30 individually owned franchises (actually 29 because New Orleans is technically owned by the NBA right now). Those 30 franchises each have their own individual objectives for the CBA. There are small-market and large-market teams in vastly different positions right now. This is likely another factor as to why this deal has been so difficult to finish.

Another fundamental difference is that players get to to negotiate their salaries individually, whereas in a traditional labor relationship, the collective bargaining agreement includes salaries for the worker represented by the union. Much like the variant positions held by different franchises, players also have unique concerns. Lebron James is going to come out of this fine regardless. the 11th man on the Golden Stat Warriors roster is probably more likely to favor a quick resolution and resume getting paychecks. Since his salary is much lower, the time missed is a much bigger deal.

The NBA labor situation is very complex on several levels and these events are further evidence of that fact.


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