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Steve Aschburner

Hunter, Fisher, Evans
Players convene Monday to decide whether to accept the lastest proposal from owners.
Patrick McDermott/NBAE/Getty Images

Player reps consider owners' offer, hold fate of NBA season


Posted Nov 13 2011 9:25PM

Labor Central
Comparing the offers
Stern's memo to players with complete offer (PDF)

NEW YORK -- The first issue of Ebony magazine went to press. Jackie Robinson signed to play for the Montreal Royals, his last exit before Brooklyn. Twenty-four Nazi leaders were put on trial at Nuremberg, Germany.

The Cleveland Rams won the NFL title, then got permission to move to L.A. Winston Churchill made his "Iron Curtain" speech in Fulton, Mo. And the Chicago Cubs headed to spring training hoping to defend their National League pennant (they finished 14 and 1/2 games back).

All of that happened the last time America went a full fall/winter sports calendar (1945-46) without the NBA (or an early version from its precursor, the BAA). By the following autumn, as the New York Knicks beat the Toronto Huskies 68-66 on Nov. 1, 1946, in the BAA's debut, it was game on. And save for the first three months of the 1998-99 season -- lost to a costly, divisive lockout not unlike the current one -- the BAA and then the NBA have kept the gym lights on, the sneakers squeaking and the best basketball players in the world not just working but amazing.

Sixty-five years later, that streak could end. When the National Basketball Players Association meets Monday morning in Manhattan, with player-representatives from the 30 teams and other union members convening to consider the owners' latest proposal to end the lockout, the fate of the 2011-12 NBA regular season could be at stake.

With a decision by the NBPA leadership and the reps to put the offer to a vote -- and its acceptance by a simple majority of union membership -- the NBA could be back in action by Dec. 15, with a 72-game season salvaged and enough activity prior to that (training camps, a quickie preseason) to begin scratching what has been in recent months an unreachable itch for so many.

With a rejection of the owners' offer followed by the pursuit of union decertification and legal remedies for what collective bargaining could not deliver, the players could put the NBA on a path to ... well, not the "nuclear winter" tossed about in some of the rhetoric but surely one long, chilly, dark, silent, miserable winter for all who care about the league from inside or out.

There's been a nip in the air since July, frankly, and relations between the players and the league have only been getting frostier. Players or, in many cases, their agents have expressed displeasure -- up to and including anger -- over negotiations that have been almost entirely concessionary by the union. The league has sought better economic terms and limitations on free-spending teams for what it claims will be better competitive balance.

The players' share of basketball-related income has been ratcheted down from 57 percent in the previous CBA to 50 percent in the owners' offer, representing approximately $280 million in the first season and $3 billion over a 10-year labor agreement.

The tension and stubbornness from both sides reached a boil Sunday night after the NBA invited questions to its Twitter account in an effort to explain its position. Miami star Dwyane Wade got in, asking, "Why are all your 'system solutions' only impacting the PLAYERS?? What have the owners giving up of significance??"

The NBA account responded, "The economics & system favored the players in prior CBA -- Teams lost over 300m last year." Soon after 80-minute session -- marked by sarcasm and friction from players, media members and fans -- the league linked to a YouTube video laying out some terms of its offer to the players.

With the union meeting set for 9 a.m., emotions are expected to run hot Monday, with a $4 billion industry in jeopardy, owners' franchise values likely to take a hit and players losing a combined $2 billion in paychecks -- all if one season is lost.

"I'm trying not to be too negative," Minnesota rep Anthony Tolliver told The Associated Press, "but it's kind of hard not to when it's been this long and this many meetings. It's hard not to get continuously more pessimistic by the day. Hopefully this deal will blow me away in a good way. But it's hard to believe that's going to be the case."

Here's something funny: A week ago, after the owners' previous (lesser) offer, there was some unease within the union that, if it were put to a membership vote, it might be accepted by players eager to get to work. Now, with a enhanced deal on the table, the anger and resentment has grown to the point that it might be rejected out of hand or lose in a vote.

There is, certainly, middle ground and time left on the clock should the owners and the players choose to find and use it. The 50-game shortened season in 1999 that ran from early February to early May was slapped together after a labor settlement on Jan. 6. It's possible that the players, on Monday, will consider a version of the owners' offer that includes a few tweaks from the union. The idea would be shift pressure for preserving or losing the season back onto the owners and NBA Commissioner David Stern.

It's not clear whether Stern would accept any such revisions, though. He held off once in a promise to invoke a harsher "reset" proposal and, after citing it again Thursday, might be disinclined to pull that punch again. The "reset" deal would drop the players' BRI share from 50 percent to 47 percent, impose a hard salary cap and claw back money from existing individual contracts. In theory, the sides could return to the bargaining table -- but the emotions enflamed by tougher terms almost certainly would shove the union toward decertification and litigation.

That conceivably could give the union some leverage, if the owners were reluctant to wade into the courts and risk the penalties of losing an anti-trust lawsuit. Then again, the NBA already has filed a lawsuit challenging the validity of such a move, while grabbing a favorable court locale. And then, just in case, it argues that with decertification, all existing player contracts would be void.

Said Stern, who blames "greedy agents" for beating the drum for legal tactics: "Decertification is a failed strategy that is just going to cost their clients more money. Both for the season and for the remaining years of their guaranteed contracts."

This is a situation ripe for worst-case interpretations: The owners are grabbing for both money and power, while using "competitive balance" as a smokescreen to pursue guaranteed profits and to make the players pay for the everybody-to-Miami move prior to last season. Their claims of $300 million in losses are bogus and, in the end, they are employers squeezing employees, while hurting thousands of much littler guys (arena workers, local eatery staff and so on). That's how some players and agents frame this fight.

The worst-case view coming back: Players are out of touch with the economy at large and were protected from the 2008 recession by the recently ended six-year CBA. They are fighting a 12 percent pay cut because, in their minds, the "talent" is the same as the product in pro sports and deserves a bigger slice than the owners who put up the capital for franchises and pay all expenses.

While the owners deal with 22 of 30 teams operating in the red, backup point guards take home $4 million annually on guaranteed contracts. And while the owners show concern for the long-term competitiveness and viability of the game, the players only focus on their salaries -- or maybe on the salaries of the next generation of players -- and never on the health of teams in less-alluring markets. That's how some owners and NBA execs frame this.

What has been missing is best-case interpretation coming from each side, accompanied by any benefit of the doubt. Maybe the players should try it the owners' way for a while, since even an industry run by billionaires can't continue to hemorrhage money forever. Maybe the owners can give a little bit more on system issues -- it's all about free-agent freedom for the players, even the many who never will benefit from it -- and then practice more self-control in signing and overpaying the wrong guys.

Maybe the two sides can turn 50-50 of $4 billion now -- or something less, given the games and revenue that have been lost -- into an equal split of a bigger pie, to the point that neither side dwells on its old 57 percent or coveted 53 percent.

For reasons that probably are easily understood, the captains of industry who got where they are by winning on business deals seem determined to win again. The professional athletes who have been trained to hate losing are fighting now almost without regard for their bank accounts to avert a massive loss. Not so much in their wallets but in their bones.

It will get better in that meeting Monday morning or it will get considerably worse.

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

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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