Union Chief's Attack on Owners May Needlessly Complicate Relations with NBA

Howard Beck@@HowardBeckNBA Senior WriterNovember 14, 2014

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The next NBA labor war did not begin this week, though you could be forgiven for thinking it had.

"Union Chief: NBA Owners Expendable," blared the ESPN video's title. 

In the article that followed, Michele Roberts, the new executive director of NBA Players' Association, blasted the NBA's salary cap as "un-American" and railed against the rookie wage scale, maximum salaries and every other cost-control measure implemented over the last 30 years.

"Why don't we have the owners play half the games?" Roberts told ESPN in the interview. "There would be no money if not for the players."

We have heard this sort of rhetorical flourish before—from Billy Hunter, the former union chief, during labor stoppages in 1999 and 2011. It's the implied threat you make when you're wrestling over revenue splits and contract lengths, or when you're simply trying to get the NBA back to the bargaining table during the dark days of a five-month lockout.

Except this time there is no lockout. The current labor deal runs through 2021. It cannot be reopened until 2017. There are no proposals on the table to rail against it, and won't be for at least three more years.

In the meantime, everyone is doing pretty well. The league will generate about $5.5 billion this season51 percent of which will go to the players. The average annual player salary is $6 millionup from $4 million in 2010-11 and on its way to a projected $8 million in 2016-17.

Adam Silver responded to the union's criticism of owners by stating that the NBA's success is the result of a collective effort between owners and players.
Adam Silver responded to the union's criticism of owners by stating that the NBA's success is the result of a collective effort between owners and players.Mark Lennihan/Associated Press/Associated Press
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And, of course, the NBA just signed a national television deal worth $24 billion over a nine-year span, beginning in 2016. The players will receive half of that sum. Salaries are about to skyrocket.

So why the posturing today? Why, in a time of labor peace, is Roberts invoking the rhetoric of labor war?

ESPN categorized Roberts' stance as "radical." It might also have added inflammatory, unrealistic and befuddling.   

The salary cap has been in place since the 1984-85 season. The rookie scale was adopted in 1996. The "max" salary rules were introduced in 1999, and the luxury tax went into effect in 2005.

All of these features of the NBA system were collectively bargainedalbeit, often under duressand ultimately agreed to by union leadership. The system has been subject to countless revisions and tweaks over the last few decades, but a wholesale overhaul is highly unlikely.

The salary cap, for better or worse, is here to stay, along with the luxury tax and countless other features that the union finds odious. No amount of posturing, or even a year-long strike, is likely to change that.

Roberts is right to say the players make the game. It's undeniable. But it's the owners who have all of the leverage at the bargaining table, which is why the players have lost ground in every labor deal since 1995.

Perhaps Roberts will prove a more skilled negotiator than Hunter was in his 16-plus years on the job. But the power dynamics are what they are. It's pure fantasy to believe that the players could get the salary cap abolished, and I suspect that Roberts knows this.

Yet Robertswho was hired this summer after a decorated career as a trial lawyerdoes have hopes of tilting the balance.

During an interview with Bleacher Report in September, Roberts spoke passionately about the need to re-engage and animate the players, who have been largely detached from union matters for the last decade-plus.

Eliminating max salaries may benefit the likes of LeBron James but may not help players in the NBA's "middle class."
Eliminating max salaries may benefit the likes of LeBron James but may not help players in the NBA's "middle class."John Minchillo/Associated Press

Union meetings are sparsely attended, and that was true even during the most critical moments of the 2011 lockout. Just 40 playersout of a membership exceeding 430showed up for a key meeting in Las Vegas in September that year. The league's superstars, from LeBron James to Dwyane Wade to Kobe Bryant, made only token appearances at bargaining sessions.

A union with disengaged constituents is a weak union, and Roberts is well aware of the challenge she faces on that front. And that, perhaps, is the goal that underlies her recent broadside against the NBA's entire economic structure.

To put it in political terms, Roberts gave a highly partisan speech aimed squarely at her base: the players—and, by extension, their agents, who have long distrusted the union.

The superstars would love to eliminate the max salary. Agents would love to abolish the rookie scale. Everyone would advocate for longer contracts and bigger raises, areas in which the players lost considerable ground over the last 15 years. Killing the cap entirely would be nirvana.

But these issues are highly complex and interconnected, and in fact pit various subsets of Roberts' constituency against each other.

The salary cap is here to stay. So eliminating the "max" salary would mean more money for superstars and less money for the middle class. Eliminating the rookie scalewhich covers first-round picks for, at minimum, their first three seasonswould mean more money for young players, leaving less for the veterans. These are not winning positions.

Roberts has been on the job for just two months, so it's possible she is merely testing her message and her voice and trying to take hold of a narrative, that, as she put it, has been controlled by the owners.

Former union chief Billy Hunter's inflammatory rhetoric was not received well by the NBA in past CBA negotiations.
Former union chief Billy Hunter's inflammatory rhetoric was not received well by the NBA in past CBA negotiations.Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

It's also fair to wonder whether this is the best strategy this early in the game. Relations between the union and the league were strained in the past in part because of the abrasive relationship between Hunter and commissioner David Stern.

With Roberts and Adam Silver now in those roles, the two sides have the opportunity to start fresh, with a more collegial and constructive approach to this economic partnership. There are parties on both sides of the divide that hope to see that take place.

Roberts' fiery rhetoric, after two months on the job, seems to be more of an extension of Hunter's street fighter style. Her remarks triggered a quick, but measured response from Silver.

"We couldn't disagree more with these statements," Silver said in a press release. "The NBA's success is based on the collective efforts and investments of all of the team owners, the thousands of employees at our teams and arenas, and our extraordinarily talented players. No single group could accomplish this on its own. Nor is there anything unusual or "un-American" in a unionized industry to have a collective system for paying employeesin fact, that's the norm."

All of this may be forgotten by the time the NBA and the union begin negotiating the next labor deal in 2017. Silver and Roberts have time to build a working relationship as they tackle a number of other issues, from HGH testing to schedule concerns. Why inflame the league now?

Roberts might succeed in rallying her base, butto extend the political analogythe partisan rhetoric won't win the general election (i.e. the 2017 labor deal) when the audience will include not just the 450 players, but also the 30 owners, the commissioner and a small army of lawyers and economists.

Perhaps, in the meantime, Roberts will succeed in swaying the public to redirect the narrative. Yet, unlike in politics, public opinion has little relevance to the collective bargaining process. Labor deals are not won in fiery speeches or opinion polls, but in a sterile hotel conference room at two in the morning.

Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.

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