For those keeping legal score at home, the first point to make is that there's no correlation between the timing of the NFLPA's decertification and the timing of such a decision by the NBPA. While labor attorneys view decertification -- the disbanding of a union and transformation its members into independent contractors -- as a potential deterrent to a lockout, the NBPA won't have the same time pressure to decertify that the NFLPA did.
Once it became apparent Friday that no deal would be reached in the NFL talks before the 5 p.m. expiration of the collective bargaining agreement, the NFLPA had to decertify and put into motion its antitrust lawsuit or risk losing its sympathetic judge. U.S. District Court Judge David Doty in Minneapolis still has jurisdiction over any and all disputes stemming from the NFL's 1993 antitrust settlement -- but only when a collective bargaining agreement is in effect. If the NFLPA had waited until the agreement expired and/or the owners imposed a lockout, Doty -- who has a history of pro-player rulings -- wouldn’t have retained jurisdiction. Doty's jurisdiction stemming from the '93 settlement was included in all subsequent CBAs.
The NBA and NBPA have no such provision, meaning lawsuits between the two sides can be filed in any court where the league or teams do business. In an interesting twist, Doty, 81, might want to clear his calendar for the summer. The NBA's collective bargaining agreement expires June 30, and one option at the NBPA's disposal would be to decertify and file an antitrust lawsuit -- guess where? -- in Doty's district. Legal experts say the case wouldn't necessarily be assigned to Doty, except that similar cases typically are assigned to the same judge to avoid differing opinions on the same legal issues within the same district.
The outcome of the NFLPA's decertification move will provide a "road map" and a "blue print" for the NBPA as it weighs its legal options when it comes to preventing a lockout or reacting to one once the NBA owners impose it, said a person familiar with the NBA's labor situation, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to address the matter publicly.
The question of whether the NBPA follows the NFLPA's lead and decertifies will depend nearly 100 percent on how successful the move is for the NFLPA. If NFL players are successful in getting an injunction preventing the NFL from imposing a lockout against a group of employees that is no longer unionized, this would be a clear green light for the NBA players -- who, coincidentally, are represented by the same attorney, Jeffrey Kessler. If decertification works for the NFL players, you don't need a law degree to see that the NBPA will run the very same play.
But if the decertification tactic winds up being, as NBA commissioner David Stern called it, "the nuclear option that falls on the party that launches it," then it becomes far less likely that the NBA players would pursue it.
"If the NFLPA is unsuccessful in blocking a lockout, then the NBA players will lose leverage," said Gabe Feldman, director of the Sports Law Program at Tulane University.
Despite different issues, the NFL and NBA labor talks are in lock step -- so much so that Billy Hunter, the executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, issued a statement this week announcing his full support of the NFLPA's efforts.
"The success of the NFL is built on the backs and shoulders of NFL players," Hunter said. "NFL players deserve nothing less than an agreement that recognizes the players' contributions and sacrifices, despite the owners' threats and tactics to impose a lockout. The NBPA offers unconditional and uncompromising support for the NFLPA's continued efforts to secure a fair deal."
The ability to watch how the NFL legal fight plays out months before their own labor D-Day is a clear advantage for both the NBA and NBPA -- but not necessarily for one over the other. On one hand, having clues as to how certain legal moves will play out could save the NBA and its players some time and lead to a quicker resolution. But Feldman, who has closely followed the issues in both the NFL's and NBA's labor strife, said the NBA situation is far more ripe for a lengthy work stoppage than the NFL's.
"Looking back at history at what has caused significant work stoppages in sports, it's typically when one side is seeking a sea change and that side has determined that they're better off not playing than playing under the current system," Feldman said.
That describes the NBA owners, who are seeking to switch from a soft-cap to a hard-cap system, but not their NFL brethren, who seem to simply want to make more money for the same reasons dogs -- well, because they can.
But with superteams having been built or under construction in all the major NBA markets, not all owners are down with the notion of killing the sport for a significant time -- perhaps for an entire season. In that regard, Stern will have a much more difficult time unifying his owners than NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will have.
On one hand, a significant number of small-market and/or low-revenue owners are unfazed by the NBA's skyrocketing TV ratings. As one person familiar with ownership's bargaining strategy put it, the obvious interest in watching NBA games on TV has no bearing on the league's financial health. "They don't correlate," the person said, asserting that the NBA gets no additional money tied to higher ratings. On the other hand, is Madison Square Garden chairman James Dolan going to stand idly by while the 2011-12 season is canceled after it was revealed Friday that Knicks season-ticket prices will increase an average of 49 percent in the wake of the team's acquisition of Carmelo Anthony?
If enough NBA owners are willing to go to the wall with their position that the soft-cap system is broken and must be obliterated at any cost, then there's little hope the early weeks and months after the expiration of the CBA will go any better than what the NFL is experiencing now. Both sides in the basketball fight can simply get their popcorn, see how the NFL players' decertification tactic works, and proceed accordingly.
All of which means a potentially long summer of watching athletes perform in the courtroom instead of where they belong.