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Steve Aschbruner

Man in the middle, Cohen, keeps both sides' respect

Posted Oct 17 2011 9:17PM

NEW YORK -- George Cohen forged his reputation as a federal mediator by bringing together the warring sides in heated labor disputes. But on the eve of his official intervention in the NBA's stalemate between its owners and its players, Cohen kept the parties apart.

He met separately with representatives of each at their respective offices Monday, first with NBA commissioner David Stern and deputy commissioner Adam Silver in midtown Manhattan, then with executive director Billy Hunter of the National Basketball Players Association and union attorneys later in Harlem.

Gathering info and perspective from opposite sides of the so-called "gulf" in their positions? Laying out his expectations for how the bargaining session Tuesday, the first in which he'll participate, proceeds? "Probably a little of both," said someone familiar with both sides.

It was a little after 4 p.m. Monday when the director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliatory Service, and FMCS colleague Scot Beckenbaugh, exited the NBPA headquarters. Since he was a new player in these talks, welcomed in by both sides as the lockout grinds through its fourth month, a reporter wanted to make sure: Mr. Cohen?

"I'm Cohen," he said as he walked down Lenox Ave. "But I can't comment. We'll begin tomorrow morning."

Begin and, if the timetable and consequences as laid out by Stern last week in some radio interviews are legit, possibly end. Done by tomorrow evening, one way or the other?

"I didn't say that," Cohen responded, friendly enough but quickening his pace at 125th St.

Appointed to his post in 2009 by President Barack Obama, pulled from his office in Washington by the number of NBA owners and players descending on New York this week -- first for the bargaining session, then for the league's Board of Governors business Wednesday and Thursday -- Cohen had a little trouble navigating his way to a nearby subway entrance (he thought he wanted the 4-5 trains downtown but, in fact, needed the much closer 2-3 line).

But navigation isn't Cohen's expertise. Negotiation is.

Fact is, they all say it. People who have been on opposite sides, in some of the most contentious fights over rights and money they've known, have the highest regard for the man in the middle.

Rob Manfred, executive vice president of labor relations for Major League Baseball, told the Sports Business Journal in March: "Among my top five all-time labor practitioners, George Cohen would be on the list." Former NBA players agemt Steve Kauffman, who represents coaches and management now, said Cohen's attributes go beyond being "good, fair, insightful." "He doesn't have a big ego," Kauffman told the New York Post. "There's no pretense to him. It would be impossible for the owners not to respect this man."

That wouldn't just happen randomly or by title, given Cohen's background as general counsel to the NBPA in the 1980s and '90s. He worked with the MLB players' union during its strikes in 1981 and 1995, and was a member of an advisory board for the NHL players' association. Cohen also mediated disputes involving Major League Soccer, federal air traffic controllers, teachers and workers in the entertainment industry.

Most recently, he spent 17 days in sessions with the NFL and its players in February and March trying to avert, then resolve, that league's lockout.

Some folks who work in that demilitarized zone between hostile factions consider themselves fortunate if they are equally disliked by both sides. Cohen somehow has carved out respect and acceptance, beyond the results of his mediation work.

"Well, I have age going for me," said Cohen, smiling, before heading down the subway steps.

Lots of folks on both sides are getting a little more gray as the NBA continues to battle with players over the split of a $4 billion industry and the system rules by which it's delivered. When talks broke off last week, after 12 hours of meetings Oct. 9-10, the players were united in their demand for 53 percent of basketball-related income, down from 57 percent in the last collective bargaining agreement. They had dug in against the owners' early proposal for a hard salary cap and were seeking longer contracts, and richer cap exceptions, than the league was offering.

The owners' official offer on BRI has been 47 percent (both sides informally discussed a 50-50 split before retreating). Serving what they have identified as a goal of better competitive balance -- as measured by the disparity in payrolls of big-revenue vs. small-revenue franchises -- they have backed off a hard cap, proposing stiffer luxury taxes than in the previous CBA on clubs that exceed a certain threshold.

Stern, after the Oct. 10 meeting, canceled the first two weeks of the 2011-12 regular season; the entire preseason already a casualty. Early in his media tour last week, the commissioner told David Aldridge on NBA TV that the season might be in jeopardy without significant progress with Cohen on board.

"If there's a breakthrough, it's going to come on Tuesday," Stern said, offering an opinion more than a prediction. "And if not, I think that the season is really going to potentially escape from us."

Really? A whole season scrapped without a deal Tuesday? The last time the NBA went through this, the two sides reached a compromise on Jan. 6 and were able to play a shortened 50-game season. There were no sweeping cancellations month in advance, just a rolling horizon wiped out games a couple of weeks at a time.

It's hard to envision a chainsaw being taken to the schedule so soon, if for no other reason what it might suggest about the owners' lockout strategy from the start.

Fisher called Tuesday "an arbitrary deadline" and Hunter told reporters in Los Angeles Friday, after a regional players meeting, that the union was prepared to meet this entire week. But the NBA has its Board of Governors sessions set -- committee work Wednesday, the whole body convening Thursday -- so Tuesday was the only day available. There was no public discussion on the sides' plans for Friday or the rest of the weekend.

That's not to say Cohen was unprepared or incapable of nudging the parties toward something meaningful in a hurry. Even before Monday, he had been talking to each side.

"Separate, informal, off-the-record" discussions he called them in announcing the FMCS's involvement.

Those who know Cohen's work praise his talents as a facilitator, keeping discussions alive long after they might have broken off without a neutral party in the room. In basic form, he can get each side to work with and through him when emotions or history might otherwise cause a rift -- or another lost week on the calendar.

The current competing proposals -- or pieces of them, more accurately -- aren't irreconcilable, say those most familiar with them. But with each side forfeiting about $170 million for every two weeks of the season that gets scuttled, rhetoric has been cranked up. That's the first thing Cohen will try to douse Tuesday, possibly urging Stern, Silver, Hunter and Fisher not to hold their customary media briefings afterward.

For all of his guile and statesmanship, however, it's important to remember that Cohen can only steer the owners and the union toward a compromise. He is not an arbitrator who can impose a settlement. If the NBA's combatants want to keep fighting as autumn turns to winter, either to push their terms or to "win" while risking both fans' antipathy and apathy, this most-respected mediator might wind up where the NFL left him back in March.

"No useful purpose would be served by requesting the parties to continue the mediation process at this time," Cohen said in a statement back then, stepping away from the football dispute that lasted another four months.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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