Robertson applauds players union for adding James’ clout as VP

NEW YORK – The adversaries that get drawn in bold strokes in any NBA collective bargaining negotiations (and too often, subsequent lockout coverage) are the owners vs. the players. The commissioner – now Adam Silver, before that David Stern – vs. the head of the union. Michele Roberts has that title now as the NBPA’s executive director now, filling the job previously held by Billy Hunter.

But there’s an underlying tension, too, between the stars of the NBA and its so-called working or middle-class players. They are the league’s role players. They are the guys who typically make up The Other Nine on teams fortunate enough to have A Big Three. They are the league’s “82.7 percent” if you want to go by the percentage of NBA players who makes less than $8 million, about 372 of approximately 450.

About two-thirds of the league’s performers are paid less than $5 million, and according to ESPN.com data, nearly 40 percent (173) draw salaries between $1 million and $4 million. That means, in a union set-up, the vast rank-and-file has the votes. When push has come to shove in recent collective-bargaining agreement talks, middle-class issues from salary maximums to mid-level exceptions have been served, generally at the superstars’ expense.

But there is a place for star power. The NBPA showed that in its unanimous vote of player reps Friday to add LeBron James to the union’s executive committee, moving into the position opened when Roger Mason Jr. retired to take an NBPA management role.

And Oscar Robertson, an authority on star power in sports labor relations, concurred. Robertson – the game’s legendary “Big O,” worthy of any NBA Mount Rushmore as the game’s all-time triple-double threat – spoke Saturday about his nine years as union president. Fifty years ago this summer, after the Maurice Stokes benefit game at Kuthser’s Resort in the Catskills, Robertson was courted by retiring NBPA president Tom Heinsohn, Jack Twyman and union director Larry Fleisher to take over as president.

Robertson provided the sort of high profile leadership that James, teaming with current NBPA president Chris Paul, can offer when the next CBA talks ramp up toward 2017. He shared with ESPN.com his experience and his perspective on James’ impact:

“I think it’s wonderful, the stars need to lead by example,” Robertson said on Saturday. “There’s so much to be done in the next few years.”

Robertson believes that James can leverage his position as the league’s signature star in ways he could not 40 years ago and that is why having him and Paul as the face of the union could be valuable.

“It’s not a risk for LeBron because he’s a star; there’s nothing they can do to LeBron,” Robertson said. “You have to be successful and then you can put yourself in that position. Times have changed, there is nothing the owners can do. Years ago, owners didn’t want players in (union leadership), they tried to trade you or get rid of you and get you out of the league. They’ll deny that but it was true.”

Robertson put his name on the lawsuit in which the union successfully challenged the reserve clause, leading to free agency in the NBA much as Curt Flood‘s fight paved the way in baseball. The Cincinnati and Milwaukee star guard felt he paid a price after his playing days, losing out on broadcasting, coaching or executive positions out of NBA owners’ resentment.

But in recent years, Robertson felt the game’s stars weren’t doing enough of the union’s work, leaving the decisions and public-relations goodwill to players with lower profiles.

“LeBron can get instant access to the media and the fans,” Robertson said. “In this day and age, it isn’t always what you do behind closed doors. Sometimes it’s public and getting the mass of people behind you. I’m sure he can do that.”

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