Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Lessons from the History of NBA Labor, Part 3: Antitrust & Decertification

The History of NBA Labor and the disclaimer of interest filed by the National Basketball Players Association on Monday shows that decertification and antitrust lawsuits transitioned from an offensive collective bargaining strategy to a defensive one.

1970: First Antitrust Suit
In 1970, the NBPA filed an antitrust lawsuit known as the “Oscar Robertson Suit” (the hall of famer was NBPA president at the time) that resulted in a restraining order to block the ABA-NBA merger and a better market for players. This suit also resulted in the first CBA that included increased minimum salaries, a playoff pool and per diem allowance for players.

The interesting thing to note about this antitrust suit is it did not prevent a new labor agreement from being ratified by the NBA and NBPA.

In 1976, the players agreed to exchange dismissal of the “Oscar Robertson Suit” for free agency, $5.3 million, increases in pension benefits and minimum salaries, medical and dental coverage, term life insurance and other compensation.

1987: First Threat of Decertification
In 1987, NBPA president Junior Bridgeman led what the Association for Professional Basketball Research (APBR) called, “a failed attempt at an antitrust suit”, but the threat of decertification resulted in a guaranty of 53 percent of revenues for players, unrestricted free agency, reduced length of the draft and inclusion of more players in the pension plan. The players were guaranteed 53-57 percent of revenues under the 1983 collective bargaining agreement (CBA).

1995: Decertification Election
In 1991, the NBPA discovered the NBA withheld $92.7 million of revenues guaranteed to players from luxury suite rentals, playoff ticket sales and arena signage.

In 1995, the NBA locked out the NBPA and allegedly negotiated a secret agreement with NBPA president Buck Williams and executive director Simon Gourdine that included “a luxury tax, rookie salary cap and other provisions designed to tighten the salary cap.”

Although NBPA player representatives rejected the NBA’s proposal, Patrick Ewing and Michael Jordan led a group that pushed for decertification. Players voted against decertification by a count of 226-134 and the NBPA player reps ratified a revised proposal from the NBA that included unrestricted free agency for all players, 48 percent of basketball-related income (including luxury suites, playoff tickets, etc.), three-year rookie-scale contracts and various salary cap exemptions.

The threat of decertification also played a role in the 1998 NBA lockout, which resulted in a 50-game season and foundation of the CBA that expired July 2011.

Final Score
The NBPA’s use of antitrust and decertification as weapons in negotiations with the NBA only seems to work when they actually file a lawsuit like the Big O did in 1970. Threats of decertification only seemed to net minor gains, if any.

It’s a powerful statement about the state of relations between players and the NBA in 2011 when they have to file a lawsuit just to maintain the status quo.

NBA commissioner David Stern questioned the validity and viability of the NBPA’s strategy since many think it didn’t work for the NFL Players Association. The NBPA retained the lawyers from both sides of that antitrust lawsuit to mitigate that risk.

If there’s going to be a group of professional athletes that could re-establish the power of antitrust lawsuits in collective bargaining, then it makes sense the first professional sports union would be the one to do it.

Information from Larry Coon’s CBA FAQ was used for this post.

See the History of NBA Labor: Part 1 and Part 2 along with this special post for more on what fans can learn from past negotiations between players and the NBA.

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