CHICAGO – Serious men tackling significant issues. That’s how some past leaders of the National Basketball Players Association view their group’s history, and that’s why the current power struggle within the union is so troubling to them.
“They’re making too much money,” said Oscar Robertson, a former NBPA president whose lawsuit to prompt free agency in the NBA is nearly as legendary as his Hall of Fame career and triple-double feats. “There are no goals to strive for anymore. They got together and got the collective bargaining agreement resolved. There’s no goals now.”
The CBA that the players and owners ratified in December ended an acrimonious, five-month labor lockout, salvaged a shortened 2011-12 season and got the NBA to eve of what it hopes will be a memorable postseason. The deal also shifted $3 billion from the players to the owners if it runs its full 10-year term, caused factions within the union’s ranks and led to the intramural conflict now between NBPA president Derek Fisher and executive director Billy Hunter.
Fisher has asked for an independent audit of the union’s finances and business practices, which allegedly include compensation and opportunities funneled to Hunter’s family members through direct employment and affiliations, according to stories by Yahoo! Sports and the New York Times. The executive committee of eight current and former NBA players responded by voting 8-0 asking for Fisher’s resignation, which the veteran point guard has declined.
It all has bubbled over, in an age of endless media coverage, at an awkward time of year for those involved, putting the union’s business very much in the sports world’s streets. “What bothers me more than anything,” said Robertson, the NPBA president from 1965-74, “if they’ve got a problem, why don’t they settle it within their organization instead of going public with the whole thing? We settled all our problems within.”
Said Junior Bridgeman, a swingman who played 12 NBA seasons and served as union president from 1985-88: “Definitely, from my time and after my time, this is rare. Normally when you have a changing of the guard, you’ll have people vying for control and leadership – that’s kind of normal. But we never had a lot during or after collective bargaining where people, whatever they were arguing about, became such a public display or public power play.”
Robertson and Bridgeman admitted that they weren’t knowledgeable on specifics of the Fisher-Hunter squabble. Given the agenda items when they were involved, though, it’s not surprising if this latest conflict might lack gravity for them.
Back in the 1950s and ’60s, pioneers of the NBPA such as Bob Cousy and Tom Heinsohn battled with the owners for what now would be considered bare essentials: a pension plan, medical and training considerations, minimum salaries and working conditions (such as a limit on the number of exhibition games demanded prior to and even during a season).
Filed in 1970, the “Oscar Robertson suit” challenging the NBA’s option clause in player contracts led to NBA free agency. And by the 1980s, the players’ union and the league – while never a fully cooperative “partnership” as sometimes portrayed – did tackle some serious issues for their mutual benefit, including the creation of major pro sports’ first salary cap and a breakthrough anti-drug policy. Such measures paved the way to the NBA’s greatest period of growth and profits.
“Those days are crucial,” Robertson said. “I think those days and that decision – the ‘Oscar Robertson’ case – and the players led by [former executive director] Larry Fleisher made the NBA what it is today.
“What did Michael Jordan make one year? Thirty million dollars? You wouldn’t see that. You wouldn’t see private jets, first-class hotels, having $120 meal money per day. You wouldn’t have seen that at all. And players don’t understand that.”
Robertson said he would like every NBA rookie to read about the league’s history “just to understand what it’s all about.” “Why can a player make $5 [million] or $6 million a year when he’s only worth about $50,000?” he said.
That might sound like some old-school, “get off my lawn!” guy talking. But it seems fair, too, given the lack of perspective today’s players – and union members – may have for circumstances that predate them.
“As the years have gone on, you get so far removed from how the association developed,” Bridgeman said. “You forget how much everybody’s benefited over the years, just because you didn’t see anything different. … When you lose track of that, then all these other things come into play as far as, ‘Well, I should be making this because I’m this good’ or ‘I should have this because of who I am.’ Then you start to get the unraveling of the association.”
There’s a whole lot of unraveling going on at the moment.