Officials on both sides spoke modestly about what was achieved during a session that lasted 12 hours in total and cautioned against getting swept up in the latest wave of optimism around the league that a deal to finally end this 133-day lockout is near.
“There was enough give and take on both sides to merit us both coming back tomorrow,” union executive director Billy Hunter said late Wednesday.
The union was hoping for more after Hunter and union president Derek Fisher, for the first time since the lockout began, were authorized Tuesday by player reps from 29 of the league’s 30 teams to accept a 50/50 split in annual Basketball Related Income if they could secure concessions from the league on the five or so remaining “system” issues that have kept the sides from striking a deal.
NBA.com reported that an unspecified amount of progress was made on three of those system issues, but that the parties continue to struggle to find compromise on the parameters of a workable mid-level exception and face “a couple of new issues added to [the] mix.” The various restrictions and penalties that owners continue to insist on to regulate teams that stray into luxury-tax territory, sources say, are where the sides continue to snag.
Another major hurdle, sources say, is the knowledge shared by both Hunter and NBA commissioner David Stern that the votes to approve any deal they agree to are likely to be closer than ever before in past labor battles, given the rival factions that have formed within both groups during the four-month work stoppage.
“We can’t say that there was significant progress made today,” Fisher said.
Said Stern: “Nothing was worked out today. … We’re not failing and we’re not succeeding. We’re just there.”
Wednesday’s triumph for the union, then, was keeping the talks going well enough to convince Stern to abandon the ultimatum he issued to the players Sunday, which called for the league to immediately revert to a far more restrictive proposal than the deal presented by the league Saturday if there was no accord by Wednesday at 5 p.m.
Stern said the league will revert to the lesser offer, which affords the players just a 47-percent annual share of BRI as well as a hard salary cap and rollbacks of existing contracts, at the end of the current session.
“Whether it ends today or tomorrow,” Stern said.
The fact that the sides continued to trade proposals behind closed doors well past the deadline Stern issued Sunday prompted players, team executives and agents all over the NBA — as seen on more than one occasion last month — to think that a tentative agreement was near.
Stern and Fisher, however, have assured their constituents that the league will relax some of the proposed restrictions against tax teams, such as its determination to forbid taxpayers from participating in sign-and-trade deals and having access to the full mid-level exception. So they’re under pressure to deliver and secure a few concessions with the union dropping to a 50/50 split after players earned 57 percent of BRI in the final year of the previous labor deal.
Stern, meanwhile, has to contend with a group of small-market owners — led by Charlotte’s Michael Jordan — that doesn’t even want to offer 50/50. ESPN.com reported Tuesday that player reps were informed during Tuesday’s union meeting in New York that the league currently expects just 17 teams (including the league-owned New Orleans Hornets) to approve the deal as constituted, with 13 teams opposing. It takes only a simple majority (16 teams to 14) to approve a new labor deal, but Stern has maintained all summer that he prefers a stronger majority than that to seal the deal.
Said Hunter: “There are so many issues that haven’t been resolved.”
Should talks collapse again this week, sources say that players and agents at the forefront of a drive to dissolve the union through decertification will be ready to move forward with plans to file a petition with the National Labor Relations Board calling for a decertification vote.
Hunter himself acknowledged in a Tuesday night interview with NBA TV that a fast-moving decertification push– fronted most notably Boston Celtics star Paul Pierce — has “close to” 200 players in the process of signing a petition that would trigger a decertification vote. The movement, sources said, has grown to include more than the original seven agents (Mark Bartelstein, Bill Duffy, Dan Fegan, Leon Rose, Jeff Schwartz, Arn Tellem and Henry Thomas) who have been advocating decertification for months.
“I think you’d be surprised how big it’s gotten,” said one source, who added that “the wheels are in motion” and that signatures are already “coming in pretty quickly.”
Decertification is a two-step process that requires 30 percent of the league’s workforce — an estimated 130 players — to sign the petition calling for a vote. That petition is then forwarded to the NLRB, which would take up to 45 days to ratify the petition and arrange the vote, during which the union and league could continue to negotiate.
Decertification backers believe that the fear of the unknown once the process gets that far, with the labor fight potentially moving into courtrooms and almost certainly dragging out this impasse, would finally move NBA owners off the extreme hard-line negotiating stance they’ve maintained throughout the four-month lockout and lead to a more palatable offer during that 45-day window. Sources on the ownership side, however, have scoffed at the threat of decertification and likewise believe that the pre-emptive federal lawsuit filed by the NBA during the summer could potentially take the sting out of any potential decertification, although that remains a matter of some debate among legal analysts.
ESPN.com reported Tuesday that the union did not conduct a formal vote of the players assembled in the room, opting instead for an informal “everyone agrees” consensus that authorized Hunter and Fisher to accept a 50/50 BRI split as long as the league makes some concessions on some of the remaining system issues. But sources briefed on the owners’ thinking insisted Wednesday that Stern only has the latitude to make minor tweaks of “B-list” issues that would likely change the overall scope of the deal marginally.
The offer Stern made Sunday attached to Wednesday’s 5 p.m. deadline called for players to receive between 49 percent and 51 percent of annual BRI. Union officials contend that it would be nearly impossible for the league to generate sufficient revenue in any given season for the players to earn more than 50.2 percent, but Hunter and Fisher now have the go-ahead for the first time all summer to go that low on BRI if the owners will agree to relax some of those limits they want to impose on teams that stray into luxury-tax territory, which the union is fighting because it believes they will severely restrict player movement.
The negotiating teams in Wednesday’s marathon session, which began at 1 p.m. in Manhattan and ended at 1 a.m. ET Thursday, were small by design on both sides. Stern was joined on the league’s bargaining team by deputy commissioner Adam Silver, San Antonio’s Peter Holt representing the owners and lawyers Rich Buchanan and Dan Rube; Hunter and Fisher were joined by Fisher’s fellow board members Maurice Evans and Roger Mason, NBPA lawyer Ron Klempner, outside counsel Jeffrey Kessler and outside economist Kevin Murphy. Kessler joined Wednesday’s talks only after issuing a public apology in the wake of an interview Kessler granted late Monday to The Washington Post, in which he said that NBA owners treat players like “plantation workers.”
“The comments I made in The Washington Post took place in an interview late Monday night after a very long day,” Kessler said in a statement. “Looking back, the words I used were inappropriate. I did not intend to offend. I was merely passionately advocating for the players.
“I intend to call commissioner Stern and offer my apologies for the remarks. It’s very important that there be no distractions now and that the parties try to make a deal to save the season.”
Union officials were privately furious with Kessler’s comments, which prompted Stern to describe the veteran negotiator’s conduct in sessions with the NBA as “routinely despicable.”