Monday, September 26, 2011

Girding For Collective Action

I often wonder what sort of internal democratic systems the NBPA has for arriving at its negotiating positions. The NBA owners number only 30 men, while the players' union counts well over 400 members. After the September 14th negotiation in New York City, for example, the owners could surely hop on a conference call to discuss the results, while the union promised to update its players auditorium-style the following day in Las Vegas, where several dozen have been playing in an informal league. How can so many players agree? And to take one step back, who is the "union" anyway?

Besides its full-time Executive Director, headed by Billy Hunter, a former pro football player and U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California, the National Basketball Players' Association has a dispersed leadership structure. The union has an Executive Committee headed by Derek Fisher as president, and a suite of 30 players acting as team representatives. The union also employs five lawyers and two paralegals to crack difficult legal questions.

Still, when the union walks into a negotiation with the owners' labor committee, Fisher and union director Billy Hunter cannot pull out their cell phone and call up LeBron to get advice. In a letter dated September 26th, Fisher told union members that he needs their vote to firmly agree to anything, but such a plebiscite would likely be a formality; Fisher would not give his tentative assent to the owners and Commissioner Stern for a deal that he knew players would hate. Claiming lack of authority to make tough concessions is a classic negotiating ploy, but after six years since the last labor agreement and three months since this lockout began, it would be hardly be credible. Indeed, news reports indicate that Fisher has been the main or sole player negotiator alongside Hunter during the past few months. Presumably, whatever the union's internal deliberative processes may be, the union members trust Fisher with their livelihoods.

Other than Chris Paul, all the player members of the Executive Committee are role players, guys who spell a star for 10 quality minutes per night, or perhaps take an athletically laconic ball-handling and three-nailing role (Fisher) on the court but little else. The list of team representatives includes some stars with leadership ambition like Durant, Stoudemire, Pierce, and Griffin; but the median player on that list is more like Zaza Pachulia and Matt Carroll. Our instinct is to look to the league's best players for leadership against the rapacious owners, but (i) it is not clear that the ability to lead a basketball team is equivalent to business negotiation skill (just ask Timberwolves fans from the 1995-2009 era), and (ii) a famous, ultra-rich, ultra-good player like Dwyane Wade is hardly representative of his diverse and more quotidian constituency. The past three NBPA presidents were not All-Star caliber: Derek Fisher, Antonio Davis, and Michael Curry. Prior to Curry, however, most union presidents really were All-NBA talents: Patrick Ewing, Buck Williams, Isiah Thomas, Alex English. What changed? That is difficult to say; the following is purely my speculation, but perhaps the Gold's Club scandal soured players on Ewing and helped them see the merit of less flamboyant men. (Curry replaced Ewing as union president in July 2001, smack in the middle of the Gold's Club trial in Atlanta.)

The interests of superstars and role players diverge on several dimensions in these labor negotiations. Consider, for example, the proposed "hard salary cap" whereby a team's aggregate salary roll could not go above a fixed number, say, $60 million. If a team offers maximum contracts of, say, $15 million annually to two players, that leaves $30 million to be split among the remaining 13 players on the roster, meaning that the two stars each earn about seven times the average salary of the other guys. And even if every player's salary is increased pro rata at the end of the season when league-wide income comes in higher than expected, the intra-team inequality would be preserved. With a hard salary cap, it is unlikely that owners would skimp on superstar salaries in order to be nice to the little guys; the marginal revenue of fielding a showman like Durant or Griffin is, if anything, higher than the stipulated maximum salaries of around $15 or $16 million, and those bargains should be quickly seized lest some other team grab the talent. Now contrast that scenario to the present setup whereby owners can, via loopholes like the "mid-level exception" or "Bird rights", offer $5 million yearly salaries to average players like Hedo Turkoglu, even if that means exceeding the nominal salary cap. In today's system, Dwight Howard makes only three times Turkoglu's salary, rather than seven. Needless to say, most players are of middling quality and would find themselves relatively pauperized under the "hard cap" proposal. It is for them, mostly, that Fisher works.

One common trait of all NBPA presidents is their interest in running a team's floor game in future: Thomas, Williams, Ewing, and Curry, have all been NBA head coaches or assistant coaches, while Fisher has often been tabbed as a future coach. Before Thomas, 3 of the 4 prior union presidents (Alex English, Bob Lanier, and Paul Silas) later worked as an NBA head coach or assistant. The fourth in that string, Junior Bridgeman, now owns 160 Wendy's franchises. Thomas has been a solid coach (though a poor general manager) and Ewing has helped Dwight Howard to become the league's best center. Williams, quietly, has helped LaMarcus Aldridge to become perhaps the second-best. (Andrew Bogut, Andrew Bynum, Tim Duncan, Joakim Noah, and both Gasols would surely quarrel with that assessment, of course.) Both types of leadership -- NBA head coachships and NBPA presidencies -- involve the power to make dictatorial decisions while building an illusion of a consensus-based process.

So, the union seems to generally pick good leaders. With guaranteed contracts and 57% of basketball-related revenue, the union has done a heckuva a job in prior negotiations. After a lot of stalling during the summer, the next three months of negotiations will show us whether Fisher can steer his lieges through contention and temptation, or whether the owners can break Fisher's empire like Darth Vader tossing Palpatine down the reactor core.