During any other year, I’d still be pretending the Golden State Warriors could make the playoffs. They’d be 5-4 and my annual misplaced optimism would be in full effect. I’d have gone to a home game, yelled a little too loud, and talked myself into their continued success despite their decades-old allergy to playing defense.
But this year, the Warriors aren’t 5-4. This year, they’re undefeated.
Of course, so are the NBA’s twenty-nine other teams.
The reason is a protracted and increasingly ugly labor dispute that had shelved basketball until at least mid-December, leaving millions of fans perturbed and putting thousands of people out of work. (After all, while the billionaire owners negotiate with millionaire players, arena vendors, local businesses, and rank and file team employees are left jobless, held hostage by a labor battle that seems to be ignoring them completely.)
The general background is this: in the NBA, profits are divided between the owners and players. The owners are a disparate group of thirty powerful businessmen while the players are a union of 400-some-odd professional basketball players. Every so often, these factions come together and create a Collective Bargaining Agreement (or CBA) which codifies the off-court rules that govern the league. Issues like maximum salaries, contract length, and the split of basketball-related income are covered in a CBA.
While the salaries are far larger than what most Americans are used to, the general dynamic is fairly familiar: a union negotiating with the executives who run their business.
Only now, no one seems to be negotiating.
As of Monday — and after one of the best NBA seasons in recent memory — the player’s union disbanded, effectively ending nearly five months of intense negotiations, and filed a pair of lawsuits. The dispute now looks poised to move away from closed door bargaining sessions to public court rooms and the entire 2011-12 season is in serious jeopardy.
So how did we get here? There’s plenty of blame to go around, certainly, and serious questions about the leadership of both the players and owners. Owners have been loathe to make any meaningful concessions and the players have seemed rudderless and without much in the way of leverage.
But rather than dwell on that, let’s look at what decertifying a union actually means and if this move all but guarantees NBA fans a long, barren year of trying to enjoy hockey.
Put plainly, disbanding their union means the players can take the NBA owners to court. Since they are no longer technically a union, they can sue the league on antitrust grounds. In fact, they did so yesterday, with suits filed in California and in Minnesota, that claim the NBA lockout is an illegal collusion between 30 separate entities (the teams). Since the teams operate individually, the players can claim that those teams are unjustly working in concert to impose unfair and punitive rules on the players.
In other words, no union means no collective bargaining agreement. No agreement means the league’s rules aren’t protected by antitrust laws.
The players will be asking for lost wages in their lawsuit.
So what happens now? On the one hand, this maneuver could nudge the owners into reconsidering their last proposal. Cooler heads could prevail and the sides might head back to the bargaining table and finally work this out. Of course, it’s more likely that the NBA itself files an injunction and then the players appeal and then the owners appeal and…well, you get the idea. If both sides decide to tuck into litigation, we’re almost certainly looking at a lost season.
Thankfully for NBA fans, even David Boies — the attorney who is assisting the players and who, during the NFL lockout, was the league’s counsel — hopes the sides settle out of court.
“We would hope it is not necessary to go to trial,” he said earlier this week. “We will try to settle the lawsuit.”
In other words, at its base, you can view this latest move as just another in a long series of negotiating tactics. Owners and players can continue to bargain even as these suits wend their way through the court system.
Meanwhile, fans everywhere — including yours truly — are left hoping the NBA stays out of legal courts and moves back to the hardwood ones sometime soon.
- NBA players file antitrust lawsuits against league (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Report: NBA cancels more games (msn.foxsports.com)
- NBA Players File Antitrust Lawsuits Against League (nytimes.com)