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Steve Aschbruner

Labor talks take turn for worse as negotiations break off

Posted Oct 20 2011 11:46PM - Updated Oct 21 2011 7:34AM's Labor Central

NEW YORK -- By the end of the evening, or at least by a break in the he said-he said on the night that the NBA went dark again in its failed attempts to find a labor compromise and end the costly, harmful, 112-day lockout, one image lingered: Portland billionaire Paul Allen as an unexpected presence in Thursday's bargaining session, sitting there quietly as the owners' alleged muscle.

Hopes of a breakthrough turned inside-out, threatening not only more games from the 2011-12 schedule but the entire season itself. Both sides accused the other of digging in on its share of about $4 billion in annual revenue and -- over a difference of 2.5 percent, or about $100 million per year -- talks broke off with no future meetings scheduled.

As for that federal mediator, George Cohen, who arrived toting optimism about reason and conciliation, he was sent packing back to Washington.

That left the NBA days away from canceling games beyond the first two weeks (Nov. 1-14) already lost, with each month forfeited to this labor dispute costing them all a combined $800 million a month.

Numbers alone, though, don't capture and may not be able to check the emotions enflamed now, especially from the players' side and their union officials. Each said the other drew a take-it-or-leave-it line in the sand. But because NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver and San Antoinio's Peter Holt, head of the owners' labor relations committee, gave their version of events first, the players' feelings were further stoked by what they felt was misrepresentation.

"I want to make it clear that you guys were lied to earlier. It's that simple," union president Derek Fisher told reporters when the NBPA took its turn in front of the cameras and microphones.

The lie? Apparently it was when Silver and Holt said the players would not budge off a demand for 52.5 percent of basketball-related income (BRI) and would not negotiate even on system issues at that point. "They made it clear that if our position was that we were unwilling to move beyond 50 percent," Silver said, "there was nothing else to talk about, and that's when the discussions broke off today."

Countered Fisher: "We were in a similar place at the end of today, although we were obviously frustrated. But once reports come out -- and tonight it's not just reports, it was statements made by Adam and Peter themselves -- we cannot allow our players to think that that's what actually happened, from that one side."

Who lied to whom -- and when -- was important immediately after Thursday's session. But what transpired before it, and then played out during it, seemed even more compelling. That's where Allen, the Trail Blazers' owner, literally came in.

NBA commissioner David Stern did not attend either the league's Board of Governors meeting in the morning or the bargaining session that followed. He had been sent home by his doctor with flu symptoms, the league said, with his overall health certainly not helped by more than 24 hours of meetings crammed into Tuesday and Wednesday.

So Stern wasn't there when the union got to the bargaining table. But Allen, who has not participated regularly with the labor-relations committee charged with handling the owners' negotiations, was. Certainly it was his right to be there, same as with any of the team owners.

But what happened in the minutes that followed turned the union folks suspicious of Allen's presence: They felt Allen had been sent by more strident owners, notably those from smaller-revenue markets, to make sure the committee didn't yield too much to the players' wishes.

"This meeting was hijacked," NBPA attorney Jeffrey Kessler said. "Something happened at their [owners] meeting. This is not the move where the owners were yesterday. We were making progress, as you heard.

"They came back, they came without the commissioner. They came with Paul Allen. We were told Paul Allen was here to express the views of the other members of the Board of Governors. And that view was: 'Our way or the highway.'

"That's what we were told. We were shocked. We went in there trying to negotiate, and they came in and said, 'You either accept 50-50 or we're done. And we won't discuss anything else.' "

Billy Hunter, the union's executive director, said he directed some of his statements in the meeting directly to Allen. "I asked Paul, 'Are you prepared to talk about the system? You've indicated that you've been sent or brought to deliver the message that 50-50 is where it is. But where do you stand on the system?' And Paul didn't respond. He was just in the room."

Silver and Holt were not available for rebuttal late Thursday. But both said that the owners' offer to the players -- at 47 percent in their official proposal, though 50 percent had been floated by both sides -- was summarily rejected by the union, not vice versa. And not scheduling more talks right away on Friday, Saturday or beyond was some sort of mutual backing-off.

Said Holt: "I think, at least from my point of view, that both sides, for lack of a better term, felt stuck. Again, if this had been at the start of negotiations or let's say in the middle of it ... but after 45 meetings, two years, what is it, 30, 40 hours [this week], you know, we've kind of worn each other out."

Silver made again the point he and Stern have made throughout the labor talks: The owners are seeking reductions in player compensation for relief, for example, the $300 million in combined losses in 2010-11, a season in which 22 of the league's 30 teams lost money.

But they also have sought changes to the "delivery system" of the players' pay -- a hard salary cap or a tougher luxury tax on teams that exceed a soft cap -- to reduce the payroll disparity between their have and have-not teams. This, the owners contend, will assure more competitive balance, giving more franchises and their fans hope to contend each season.

Each is important, Silver said, and he talked of the players' view that they might be able to trade one major issue for the other. "I understand from the players' perspective that what they see is us asking to win at everything," the deputy commissioner said, "and that's what we heard loud and clearly from the players who participated over the last three days."

Hunter was loud and clear in another, more cynical way. He said he believed the owners are doing what they set out to do all along: Lock out the players in hopes of crushing their resolve when they begin missing paychecks in November.

"This was all pre-planned, preordained, pre-destined," he said. "It's clearly my position ... that that's been the plan all along and that's the way this thing played out. So here we are."

That position might bolster the union's complaints to the National Labor Relations Board that the league has not been bargaining in good faith; the league has made a similar complaint, with both sides awaiting decisions soon. But it won't get them back to the table, back at the work of salvaging what they can of this season, their own reputations and the game's popularity until one side or the other picks up the phone.

Meanwhile, Cohen and his colleague from the Federal Mediation and Conciliatory Service, Scot Beckenbaugh, were out of there. He had spent 17 days working with the NFL back in February and March, trying to avert their lockout that did none of the damage this one is doing. But Cohen's NBA handholding was over after three sessions.

"After carefully reviewing all of the events that have transpired," Cohen said in a FMCS statement, "it is the considered judgment of myself ... that no useful purpose would be served by requesting the parties to continue the mediation process at this time."

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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