Bargaining will resume Saturday after NBPA executive director Billy Hunter called NBA commissioner David Stern and asked if he wanted to "take another stab at it."
“I don’t know that we’re going to accomplish much, but we’re going to meet,” Hunter said. “The only way we can get a deal is by meeting.”
The talks, which collapsed yet again last Friday over the contentious split of basketball-related income (BRI), were reignited after federal mediator George Cohen called Hunter this week. Cohen, who excused himself from the negotiations after they broke down Oct. 20, offered to “resurrect his services,” Hunter said.
Hunter said the union is fine with Cohen rejoining the talks, but was waiting for Stern to give the go-ahead. In any event, the two sides will reconvene Saturday in Manhattan with “no preconditions, none at all,” Hunter said. “I think it’s not wise or prudent for us to … let huge gaps of time go by and let the clock run and not meet. Because then we become more entrenched in our respective positions.”
UPDATE: Those positions became even more crucial, and the stakes were raised higher than ever, when Yahoo Sports reported that as many as 50 players were part of a conference call Thursday with an antitrust attorney to discuss decertification. It was one of two conference calls involving players held this week without the knowledge of NBPA officials, Yahoo reported.
Several All-Stars were included on Thursday’s call, in which participants reportedly drew a line in the sand at 52 percent of BRI for the players. If union negotiators dropped below that percentage, and/or the remaining system issues went the league’s way, it would be cause for a rogue decertification vote by players frustrated with the enormous concessions the union already has made, Yahoo reported.
Unwittingly within that prism of chaos, the NBPA's three-hour strategy meeting, attended by Hunter, union president Derek Fisher and members of the players’ executive committee, took on the distinct tone of a damage-control session once a small group of reporters was led into the room. Hunter said the union executives and players had spent only 15 minutes total this week -- including Thursday’s meeting -- addressing reports of a rift between he and Fisher, but spent more time than that addressing the reports to the media.
Fisher denied having unauthorized discussions with league negotiators in which he reportedly told them he could sell a 50-50 deal to the players, and Hunter denied having a confrontation with Fisher on the matter – as reported last weekend by FOXSports.com. Union vice presidents Keyon Dooling, Maurice Evans and Matt Bonner weighed in with impassioned support of Fisher, whom Dooling called “the best president that we’ve ever had as a union.”
“I think the questions need to start being directed toward Mr. Stern and the owners as to why this gap, if it's so insignificant, hasn’t been closed by them,” Evans said.
And therein lay the real issue – not sideshows or conspiracy theories or questions about whether the president of the union discussed under what circumstances the players would move from their formal position in which they are requesting 52.5 percent of BRI. What negotiations on the remaining system issues can be accomplished to compel either side to move from its economic position?
The owners were formally offering the players a 50-50 split after about $600 million in expense reductions previously calculated under the CBA that expired July 1. But Hunter, explaining for the first time why he walked out of last Friday’s bargaining session, said the league was attempting to use those system issues to “horse trade” from a 47 percent offer to the players up to 50 percent. And Hunter also said he’s heard “rumors” that when the two sides reconvene Saturday, the league may come back with an offer that is less than the previous proposal of 47 percent – which hadn’t officially been the owners’ position since at least Oct. 4.
“Where do I expect them to start?” Hunter said. “I won’t tell you where I expect them to start. … We have an idea of what we need in order to get a fair deal.”
According to multiple sources familiar with both sides’ negotiating strategy, the pivot point for Saturday’s resumption in talks hinges on the remaining system issues that are crucial to getting the players on board with a further compromise on BRI. Primarily, they are the owners’ proposal to forbid luxury tax-paying teams from using exceptions such as the Bird and mid-level and engaging in sign-and-trade deals; the luxury tax “cliff” that magnifies the expense for a team wading into the tax because of the swing that exists between receiving and paying tax money; and an increased tax penalty for repeat offenders, or teams that stay above the tax line for multiple years.
Neither side has said publicly or privately that its existing offer on BRI represents a “best and final” offer. And neither side can present such an offer by moving from 52.5 percent (players’ proposal) and 50 percent (owners’ offer) until the remaining system hurdles are negotiated.
“It’s difficult to peg the number without knowing what comes with it, in terms of the system,” Fisher said. “And it’s extremely difficult to fully negotiate a system without knowing what the split will be. I think that’s why it’s gotten so hard and so dug in here in the last couple weeks.
“I don’t think any of us can begin to speculate on what our group – in particular, this group sitting at the table and our larger body – will be willing to agree to,” Fisher said. “We have a feel for what we need to present a fair deal.”
UPDATE: If put to a vote, the consensus is that a majority of players would accept a 50-50 deal as a lesser of two evils when compared to the losses they would incur from losing the entire season. Amid all the other agendas and damage control flying around Thursday, that's what makes a potential rogue decertification effort by frustrated players so fascinating -- and potentially apocalyptic when it comes to the chances of salvaging a deal, and the season.
To dissolve the union through decertification -- as opposed to a disclaimer of interest, in which the union would voluntarily cease representing the players -- a vote of 30 percent of union membership would be required to start the ball rolling. If that hurdle were cleared, a vote of 50 percent plus one of the membership would be required to make it official.
If decertification were achieved, the players would then sue the NBA for antitrust violations in federal court, a process that would take months to lead to further negotiations -- and potentially years to reach a final conclusion, according to legal sources. The league already has threatened in a federal lawsuit filed in August to void all existing player contracts if the union dissolved.
If the players decertified, they would be legally barred from reforming the union for one year -- unless the owners decided to recognize the union again at some point prior to that in order to achieve a collective bargaining agreement.
In a word, this would be chaos. This is where we are in a lockout that has gotten so messy, so fast that it is impossible to predict what cataclysmic events might unfold next.
It is possible that the mere threat of decertificaiton, which would all but ensure a lost season of revenues for the owners, could provide a much-needed trigger point to move the negotiations forward Saturday. But it also has the potential to further fracture the union, pitting star players and their high-profile agents against the rank-and-file who are more willing to accept the best deal they can get now to salvage close to a full season of earnings.
Two sources involved in the process agreed that the most logical solution to break the impasse would be for Stern and Hunter – the highest ranking officials charged with getting a deal – to meet privately and discuss parameters for the obvious tradeoffs that must occur to bridge the BRI gap. But one of the people said this was not a possibility that Hunter and Stern discussed in their telephone call Wednesday, and there is speculation that Stern’s hands are tied by hard-line owners who are preventing him from offering the final tradeoffs necessary to satisfy each side.
“I don't think the battle is within our union,” Dooling said. “That's not where the rift is.”
But with various players tweeting this week about a desire to accept the best offer the union can get now in order to save the season, Fisher and Hunter are in an extraordinary position: defusing that angst and presenting a unified front while also holding the line on making significant further concessions when every negotiated aspect of the deal to this point has gone heavily in the owners’ favor.
“We want to get to back and play,” Fisher said. “But we realize the ramifications of agreeing to a bad deal at this moment. And we know our fans want us to get back out there. But from our perspective as players, this particular collective bargaining agreement will forever impact the circumstances for NBA basketball players. And we can’t rush into a deal that we feel is a bad deal, just to save this season.”
The meeting Thursday at the union’s Harlem offices offered a window into the tension, frustration and responsibility that rests with Fisher and Hunter to close this deal in a way that satisfies current players who want to return to the court and others who will be affected by it for a decade or longer.
With Hunter being pressured by agents and star players who want him to hold firm at his current proposal of 52.5 percent – down from 57 in the previous deal – and with Stern also feeling Heat from hard-line owners, it is unclear whether the two men who ended the 1998-99 lockout with a private, all-night negotiating session have another season-saving deal in them. Or more important, whether they have the same authority each enjoyed in January of ’99, when they emerged with a handshake agreement on the very morning when Stern had threatened to cancel the rest of the season.
The presence of Cohen or another mediator, which Hunter and the union’s executive committee favors, couldn’t hurt. A league spokesman could not confirm one way or the other Thursday whether Stern and deputy commissioner Adam Silver would agree to more mediated talks. Some involved in the talks believe Cohen never would’ve let Hunter walk out of the negotiations last Friday, a move that Hunter said Thursday he did not regret.
“I thought it was appropriate,” Hunter said. “I thought that we had given enough. … The signals that I thought I was getting, or that we were getting, were that they would be receptive to moving off their number. And when they went back to 47, then all of a sudden it became clear to me that that wasn’t the case.”
The unspoken truth here is that the notion of a 50-50 compromise on BRI has no sinister connotations for the players if Stern is authorized to make the final system tradeoffs necessary to satisfy what union negotiators feel they need to present what they call a “fair deal” to the membership for a vote. Conversely, if Stern holds firm on the system issues, does he have the authority to increase the players’ share to 51 or 51.5 percent and close the deal?
“Our platform has been reasonableness,” NBPA general counsel Ron Klempner said. “We're looking to come to them and to meet them. And just as people are asking us, ‘Well, the difference is so small, shouldn’t you just cut it and meet them halfway?’ The same thing is on them, and it's just not worth it for them. They really do have to come and meet us halfway.”
For this reason and others, it would be irresponsible to characterize a conversation by Fisher or any other union official about a compromised split of BRI since the number cannot be separated from the system issues that go with it – conversations that Fisher vehemently denied having, even though they would’ve been well within his rights as the union president. Indeed, Hunter acknowledged Thursday that NBPA outside counsel Jeffrey Kessler broached the topic of a 50-50 split on Sept. 8 as a way to feel out whether league negotiators were inclined to discuss a split in that “zone.” But to date, the players have not made a formal offer beneath their requested share of 52.5 percent.
“I think the biggest misperception is that it’s only about two percentage points,” committee member Roger Mason said. “Because it’s about much more than 50 or 52 or whatever. There’s still a system that hasn’t been addressed.”
And a whole lot of other stuff, too.