With New Union, Euroleague Players Finally on Track for NBA-Style Rights

Leo Sepkowitz@@LeoSepkowitzContributorAugust 10, 2018

Luka Doncic and Real Madrid celebrated a Euroleague playoff victory in May. Euroleague players have since formed a union and already achieved upgrades, such as more off days between games.
Luka Doncic and Real Madrid celebrated a Euroleague playoff victory in May. Euroleague players have since formed a union and already achieved upgrades, such as more off days between games.Srdjan Stevanovic/Getty Images

Page No. 329 of the NBA's collective bargaining agreement details the good life. Section 1 stipulates that, when teams travel, they must make the following arrangements for their players: "(i) To have their baggage picked up by porters; (ii) To have them stay in first-class hotels; and (iii) to have extra-long beds available to them in each hotel." Section 2 is titled "First-Class Travel."

It's funny to see those luxuries detailed so formally—it's easy to assume they're automatic, unwritten. But that's not so. The National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) negotiated those amenities over the years. Maybe to appreciate those victories, one must look across the Atlantic Ocean to the world's second-best basketball league.

Over the past 60 years, the top European circuit has hosted some of the sport's great talent, from Arvydas Sabonis to Luka Doncic. And yet Euroleague players experience few of the same benefits their NBA counterparts do—not only when it comes to extravagant or trivial matters, but also when it comes to the more crucial components of a pro career.

In the Euroleague, there is no minimum contract, no protection against late payment and no pension program. There are long waits at airport lines, yes, but there's also no access to neutral medical opinions and shady agents sticking their hands in various pockets. At long last, however, all of that is slated to change.

This summer, the Euroleague Players Association formed. It is the first players union among international basketball leagues. Leaders of the group include players whose names may ring familiar to NBA fans: Bostjan Nachbar, Luigi Datome and Marcelo Huertas.

Bostjan Nachbar, shown in his NBA days as a New Jersey Net, is one of the former Euroleague stars who led the drive for a players union.
Bostjan Nachbar, shown in his NBA days as a New Jersey Net, is one of the former Euroleague stars who led the drive for a players union.Bill Kostroun/Associated Press/Associated Press

From the union's perspective, its fight is about "understanding that players for years have been playing in this league without having a voice heard and co-created this league without being acknowledged," Nachbar told B/R. "To not have an organization that would protect the players or pursue players' rights at this level in 2018 has always been a shock for me."

The league itself seems ready, too. "A potential future collective bargaining agreement will further strengthen the commitment of the league and its clubs towards the players, as well as the commitment of the players towards their club and the league," Eduard J. Scott, the Euroleague COO, said.

The ELPA has already succeeded on a few fronts. This coming season, which starts October 11, there will be improved travel accommodations, guaranteed hot meals after games and access to a secondary medical opinion from a neutral doctor.

Schedules will also adjust to include planned days off. "There were some instances last year where players didn't have an off day for two or three months," Nachbar said. "There were no rules. If a player wasn't willing to practice three times per day, he was in breach of contract."

New contract protections should attract American players who are considering an overseas career.

"A lot of times you talk to guys, and they're afraid to go over because they hear the stories about teams missing payments or other situations," said Kyle Hines, an ELPA vice president who has played abroad since 2008. "So if they have some type of representative body to represent their voice and protect their rights, guys will be more inclined to go over."

CSKA Moscow's Kyle Hines (right, with Trey Thompkins) is vice president of the ELPA.
CSKA Moscow's Kyle Hines (right, with Trey Thompkins) is vice president of the ELPA.Darko Vojinovic/Associated Press

That makes sense to Romeo Travis, who's an 11-year international vet. "If you play professionally, you need a union—the way teams treat guys, muscle guys, disrespect guys, I don't think that's right," Travis said. "I've gone months without being paid. I've been fined for no reason other than the team was having money problems and didn't want to pay me."

Travis notes it costs at least a few thousand dollars for a player to sue his team over money owed. At times the legal fees surpass the debt, and in any case, if a player doesn't have enough money to sue, well: tough.

In other, arguably more complex areas, it will be interesting to watch negotiations unfold in the coming years. For instance, the introduction of a pension program seems obvious and overdue; it was one of the first staples of the NBPA when it formed in 1964. For the Euroleague, though, there are obstacles: Among the 16 teams, nine countries are represented and five franchises play in countries outside the European Union, which introduces odd tax issues.

Meanwhile, there is an opportunity for the Euroleague to, just maybe, iron out some of the NBA's issues by facing the same obstacles (the ELPA has been in touch with the NBPA since unionizing). For instance, the simultaneous existence of the salary cap and maximum contract has resulted in more superstar movement across the NBA—not less, which was the supposed intention. The Euroleague has neither provision in place. Now, it might consider implementing them, since it, too, has a major problem.

In the Euroleague, according to Nachbar, team budgets range from $5 million to $40 million. Naturally, there is little parity, leading to a predictable, somewhat unfair league. A salary cap could help rein this in. But then of course player salaries might come down, which the ELPA would be loath to enable. So, will there be a salary cap? "I'm a bit split on that," Nachbar said.

Still, regardless of whether the ELPA can untangle the NBA's problems or straighten all of its own, the union is set to make its mark. Overseas, where countless other leagues remain unionless, it is a trailblazer.

"In the smaller leagues, you see even more players not being paid, getting injured and cut without a chance for a second opinion, and so on. You see American players have a bad experience and think all of Europe is like that," Nachbar said. "I'd love to see players unionize on different levels, setting standards for their league and not allowing some of those clubs to take advantage of them."

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