The NBA: Labor Negotiations Produce Puzzling Comments From Billy Hunter

The recent NBA draft was a great success for the Kentucky Wildcats, but how about for the Wildcats players who were drafted?  Lest we forget, there is a pretty important struggle going on right now between the league and the NBA players over, of course, money.  Yes, there are other issues, but the real issue is greenbacks, moolah, cheddar, dollar bills, and who gets how much.

Let's throw it over to Billy Hunter, the National Basketball Players Association executive director, for our first giggle:

Professional athletes are often puzzled by the general public’s attitude toward them when they become embroiled in labor disputes with team owners. That attitude seems to range from apathy to contempt; few seem to identify with the players at all.

...

"It’s part of the overall climate that one sees around the country," Hunter said. "True, our players may earn a few more dollars than the average person, but they’re still confronted by the same issues." [my emphasis]

I think Hunter was trying to be serious, but ... seriously?  I am reminded of the movie Jerry Maguire ,in the scene in which Tom Cruise is watching a TV sports show and a football player with an apparent drug problem, crying, tells the host:

They don't understand what kind of problems and pressures 54 million comes with.

This perfectly illustrates Hunter's absurdity.  The average NBA salary is something around $5.5 million dollars.  Of course, that number is misleading due to the mega-contracts of guys like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James et. al. , but the league minimum for a rookie with 0 years of experience was almost $442,000 in 2010-11.  The average household income for Americans in 2009 was around $41,000.

It isn't that people can't make the leap of logic to see the similarity, it's the contrast in problems that keep rearing up.  Most Americans are trying to keep their financial heads above water and keep from drowning in debt, and it drives nearly every decision from choice of schools to family vacations.  NBA players, even at the lowest level, have no real excuse for having financial problems at all other than living in vast excess, due to the fact they make more in 1 year than "Joe Six-pack" does in a decade.

So I guess the only thing I can say to Billy is, "Brother, please!"  The average American understands the labor vs. management struggle perfectly well, but your stakes are just a little different.

Hunter goes on to make yet another comment that struck me as funny:

"Their intention is to lock us out and break the union to achieve what they want to achieve," Hunter said following a meeting of player representatives from the 30 teams.

On it's face, this seems to make sense.  Wouldn't the league be better off without the NBPA?  In a word, no.

The NBPA is the only thing standing between the NBA and an endless series of antitrust lawsuits, which is exactly what happened when the NFLPA decertified in 1987 after the NFL broke their strike, and ultimately forced the NFL back to the bargaining table.  Like the NFL, without the NBPA or similar labor union, the NBA could no longer effectively act as a league, at least in the sense that it does now.

What no NBPA would essentially do is force a contraction of the league and a firewall between teams.  Without intraleague sharing and collaboration, salary caps and free agency restrictions to "level the playing field," it's likely that the NBA might have to split itself into small market and large market divisions.  It would change the game dramatically, and I have no idea if it would be successful or not, but my feeling is that it would be bad for players and bad for management, except for the large-market team management, who would probably reap vast profits due to lower player salaries assuming league popularity did not decline below a certain level.

There is a limit to how low salaries can go, though, and that is largely determined by the burgeoning foreign basketball leagues.  Competitive pressure for players from that quarter would likely ramp up quite a bit and force a floor on the large-market team salaries, and place small-market teams in an even more difficult position.

To me, at least, the NBA union (and probably the NFL union also), because of the problems it solves with the Sherman Anti-Trust act, is less parasitic than other unions seem to be, and more symbiotic.  So I think Hunter is profoundly wrong there.  The NBA needs the union to exist in its current form, and the union needs the NBA to maximize player income.

What works against the union is that fans and general public are largely opposed to millionaire collective bargaining, on the principle that regardless of the similarity to other private union issues, they just aren't the same due to the amount of money the players are making.  Is that "class envy?"  Yes, but then again, we are talking about human beings here with all their faults.

In the end, both parties know that they will reach an agreement.  What we have here is posturing.  Both parties have valid arguments and grievances in this fight that need to be addressed, and they eventually will be, at least at some level.

But if Hunter thinks he can rally public support by hyperbole such as the above, I don't think he could possibly be more wrong.

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