NBA Armageddon 2011 – is the NBA Players Association in trouble
The past week hasn’t been very good for the National Basketball Association Players’ Association. NBAPA executive director, Billy Hunter, sent a letter to his membership Tuesday. Hunter’s letter followed a letter NBAPA President Derek Fisher sent NBA players. The firestorm of letters and subsequent fallout began with a column Fox Sports’ Jason Whitlock wrote earlier this week – an explosive piece that may end up with Fisher suing both Whitlock and Fox Sports.
Whitlock, using a journalist’s best friend “unnamed sources”, alleged that Fisher was in David Stern, the NBA Commissioner’s, pocket. Whitlock based his allegations on a number of interesting facts and suppositions. According to Whitlock, “Derek Fisher has been co-opted by commissioner David Stern — and promised the commish he could deliver the union at 50-50.” Whitlock pointed out that former NBAPA president Michael Curry, after successfully ‘delivering’ the NBAPA and new five year CBA to Stern and the NBA in 2005, (on June 25, 2005) retired as an NBA player. Stern then announced on Sept. 8, 2005 that the now retired Curry would be joining the NBA’s front office as vice president, player development for the NBA Development League.
“Michael has always expressed an interest in helping to develop young players whose potential has yet to be realized,” Stern stated in a 2005 release. “His personal experience in development leagues and ultimately as a valued NBA veteran, makes him a perfect fit to contribute to the mission of the D-League.”
Curry left that job in August 2006 and was promoted to NBA vice president, basketball operations. A year later Curry joined Flip Saunders’ Detroit Pistons staff as an assistant coach signing a three-year $7.5 million contract. Curry was fired by the Pistons a year later.
An upset Fisher lashed out at Whitlock in both media interviews and in the letter he sent to NBA players that followed Whitlock’s accusations and assumptions.
"The statements made in recent articles on the Fox Sports website are inexcusable. Among the many baseless accusations, to allege that I am working with the league for my personal gain is unequivocally false. The implication that I am doing anything but working in the best interests of the players is disgusting, defamatory and a flat out lie. I have issued a letter through my attorneys demanding a retraction for the libelous and defamatory stories the site and reporter have continued to publish.
"Regardless of media reports, the Players Association, our staff, Executive Director and Executive Committee are unified and working side by side to serve our players. There should be no more distractions. We must continue to negotiate a fair deal for our players."
“Usually I wouldn't even dignify absurd media reports with a comment. But before these reports go any further, let me say on the record to each of you, my loyalty has and always will be with the players. Anyone that questions that or doubts that does not know me, my history, and what I stand for. And quite frankly, how dare anyone call that into question. The Players’ Association is united and any reports to the contrary are false. There have been no side agreements, no side negotiations or anything close. We are united in serving you and presenting the best options and getting everyone back to work.
“The attempt by "sources" to divide us will be unsuccessful. We will continue to work every day to do right by you, the businesses that depend on our league and our fans,” an angry and upset Fisher wrote.
That there are differences of “opinions” between Fisher and Hunter – of course there are. Appearing on the nationally syndicated radio Jim Rome Show Thursday afternoon, Whitlock told Rome that his sources told him there was rift between Hunter and Fisher.
Hunter did his best to clear things up in his letter to NBA players. Hunter’s letter focused on the rationale for the players walking out of negotiation sessions with the owners last Friday, but ended with this: “Contrary to what is being said in the media, Derek, myself and the Negotiating Committee are of one accord. Derek is a fearless defender of player rights both at the bargaining table and behind the scenes, and he carries out his duties as President with the same degree of courage, focus and tenacity that he has exhibited on the court as a five-time champion. We are all well served to have Derek in a leadership capacity during these negotiations.”
Yahoo! Sports Adrian Wojnarowski took a very opposite view in a column he wrote earlier this week. Wojnarowski suggested that there is a growing movement among NBA players to never allow Hunter to walk out of any negotiation session without first talking to the players.
“Billy can’t just say its 52 or nothing, and walk out again,” one league source involved with the talks told Yahoo! Sports. “That will not happen again. It’s time that the players get to make a decision on this, and there won’t be another check lost before they do.”
The key to that quote: “a league source”, not a source close to the NBAPA. This was, however, an unnamed source close to the NBAPA.
“Right now, everyone has to choose sides: Billy or Derek,” one player involved in the labor process told Yahoo! Sports. “How the [expletive] did it come to this?”
The New York Times reported that the hawkish owners – those who want to destroy the NBAPA – want David Stern to negotiate an agreement where the basketball related income (BRI) falls in favor of the owners and not the reported 50/50 BRI split Stern has been offering the NBAPA.
One high-ranking official told Yahoo! Sports: “The others realize that if you do that, you will lose a season. If the players will not take 50 now, they will not take less than 50 until they sit the whole year.”
The two sides are set to meet Saturday. Stern, for his part, did offer this to The New York Times in regard to ‘doing his best’ to keep the BRI split at 50/50: “I believe that a majority of teams are in favor of making the deal that we were offering to the players,” Stern said. “And I’m trying very hard to keep that deal on the table.”
Appearing on ESPN New York with Stephen A. Smith, New York Knicks’ forward Chauncey Billups offered his perspective on where the NBAPA is now and where it may be heading. Billups is in the fourth year of a $60.5 million contract. If the entire NBA season were to be lost Billups would lose $14.3 million he’d never make back. Billups did his best to look at the ‘big picture’.
"I'm willing to fight with the union," Billups, 35, said. "Do I want to lose $14 million or whatever it might be? I don't want to lose a dime. My career is almost over. I want all of that. But at the same time, I was in that other lockout (in 1998-99) and I know what those older guys were willing to do for me. ... I'm in that position now and that's where I stand.
“Honestly, you’ve got 400-some players and obviously the general body of the league are not in my position … that are maybe as in stable position of myself or some of the older, aging veterans. We have to be sensitive to the fact that some of those guys are young, although we, for the last two and a half, three years, said, ‘Prepare yourself; save your money.’ … We’ve got to know that some guys didn’t. … Then you’ve the guys that are really, really involved in the situation saying, ‘No, you don’t really understand what that 50-50′s really going to do going forward. You’re just worried about today.”
One of the biggest challenges Hunter and Fisher have faced throughout the lockout is trying to get their message out and attempt to control what NBA players are saying. That hasn’t been an issue for David Stern.
Last Friday Miami Heat owner Micky Arison found himself embroiled in a Twitter related incident that resulted in Stern fining the billionaire owner of Carnival Cruise Line $500,000. According to The New York Times an angry fan berated Arison on Twitter for “ruining the best game in the world” and accused the owners of acting like “greedy pigs,” Arison responded on Twitter, “You are barking at the wrong owner.”
Last year, Stern fined Wizards owner Ted Leonsis $100,000 for comments about the owners' want for a hard salary cap. And last month, Stern fined Bobcats owner Michael Jordan $100,000 for telling an Australian media outlet the NBA's current business model was "broken."
David Stern runs one of the tightest ships in sports – its all for one and one for all. Do all 29 NBA franchise owners agree with David Stern? Of course not; just ask Arison. And, it’s a great deal easier to control what 29 owners (remember the New Orleans Hornets are still owned by the NBA) say then it is to control how hundreds of NBA players feel about not playing NBA games.
The real question that needs to be asked and answered: is the widening split in the NBAPA enough to force the players into accepting a deal? And, what if Hunter brought the current 50/50 BRI split and systematic collective bargaining agreement to the players; would a majority of the players accept that proposal?
It’s not a matter of if, but when, the NBAPA capitulate to the owners. Dissention among the players is rampant, this from Jerry Stackhouse a 16-year NBA veteran who played seven games for Miami Heat last year appearing on ESPN’s Jim Rome is Burning
“Not to say anything against Derek Fisher, it’s not that I don’t think he’s a great guy,” said Stackhouse. “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.”
“David Stern, he’s made this league what it is,” Stackhouse continued on the ESPN. “He’s one of the greatest commissioners in sports. He’s got that title, he’s got the NBA at the place where it is because he’s a shrewd businessman and knows how to work his way, play the media, play things up to get what he wants. We don’t do that. 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.”
Stackhouse may be the voice of reason – sanity certainly. Stackhouse’s NBA career, including the lockout shortened 1998-99 season, a season that began in January, a regular season that included only 50 games.
“Over the course of my career, the last 16 years, it seems like the executive committee is always making concessions,” Stackhouse said. “More concessions, more concessions in each Collective Bargaining Agreement and this is no different. I don’t think there’s ever been a case where it seems like we have any leverage. . . . We need to have more people who are capable of going toe to toe with David Stern and I just don’t think players who spend most of their time playing basketball and Billy Hunter are geared to do that.”
What has become embarrassingly clear, the NBAPA doesn’t have the resolve to ensure the players have the fortitude to withstand a prolonged NBA work stoppage. The owners don’t want to miss games but if games aren’t played, if the entire 2011-12 NBA season is lost, the billionaires who own NBA franchises will survive financially. What is just as certain, there are hundreds of NBA players who are not in a financial position to miss an entire NBA season. If you were a betting man, bet there will be a settlement sooner rather than later and bet that the owners will get what they want. As tough as NBA players are on a basketball court it appears they don’t have what it takes off the court to be successful against NBA owners.
For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom