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A Giant Leadership Failure

With the players decision to begin the process of decertifying the union, the entire 2011-12 NBA season is now in serious jeopardy. 

Missing a season wouldn’t seriously damage the league’s long-term health, but it would be a completely unnecessary public relations blow, especially after the NBA’s most popular season since Michael Jordan’s second retirement. How could a rapidly growing $4 billion organization have a year-long work stoppage because labor and management couldn’t agree on how to distribute the profits?

It’s a grand failure of leadership from David Stern and Billy Hunter, two lawyers paid handsomely to ensure such a scenario could not happen. Stern had to offer such a lopsided deal because he did such a poor job selecting the league’s prospective owners over the last decade. Hunter had to reject it because he had not set up an effective means of communication between the union and its leadership.

Since the very beginning of the lockout, it’s been clear that the owners have not been willing to compromise. They published wildly misleading financial numbers while insisting the lockout was about competitive parity when it was really about making a small group of over-leveraged owners whole.

The players, understanding that they did not have much bargaining power, gave ground for most of the last five months. The negotiating committee, led by Hunter and NBPA President Derek Fisher, insisted their one “red-line” was the preservation of the current luxury tax/soft cap system. Yet they also continually waived away the idea of using the “nuclear option” of decertification as leverage, pinning their hopes on what’s looking like an ultimately fruitless appeal to the largely toothless National Labor Relations Board, rather than taking the tack of the NFLPA and decertifying as soon as they were locked out.

Stern is an excellent negotiator, and he knows what canceling the season will do to his legacy. He has been trying to placate a group of extremely intransigent hard-line owners who wanted him to make even fewer concessions, and it took him all he could to get them to agree to offer a deal last week.

When he offered the players a deal after 40 hours of negotiation last week, he probably thought they would take it. After all, if the players hadn’t decertified in July, when there was much more time to unwind the inevitable legal process before endangering their paychecks, why would they decertify in November? From Stern’s point of view, if decertification was off the table, and the players knew this was the best deal they were going to get without it, why wouldn’t they agree?

Instead, either because the players were emboldened by Stern’s rhetoric or because they never were interested in giving back as much as Hunter did in negotiations, they decided to reject Stern’s offer and decertify. Either way, there was a clear breakdown in communication between Hunter and his constituents.

Hunter should have known where his union’s “red-line” actually was, and if he did, he should have known the owners would never agree to it without decertification. In effect, Hunter has been wasting everyone’s time for the last five months.

With TNT’s David Aldridge tweeting that some players hadn’t even been able to talk to their team representatives before the pivotal meeting Monday, it’s not that surprising a communication breakdown occurred.

Yet, whenever there is not an active CBA negotiation process, what else does Billy Hunter’s job entail besides making sure that the lines of communication are open? DeMaurice Smith, the head of the NFLPA, made a point to personally meet with every one of the 32 NFL teams in training camp when he was elected to represent them. Smith, with his numerous connections to the Democratic political establishment, was a far more effective communicator during the NFL’s lockout than Hunter, who has chosen to take a step back from the public eye and let Derek Fisher be the face of the union during these negotiations.

Of course, at the end of the day, Hunter and Stern are just lawyers paid to represent the interests of people far more powerful than them. Once owners like Robert Sarver, Dan Gilbert and Michael Jordan became involved in the NBA, the path to a year-long lockout might have been inevitable. Unfortunately, the actions of Hunter and Stern may have made that more, and not less, likely.

The one upside to losing the 11-12 NBA season is that Stern and Hunter would likely go with it. But the season is not lost yet, and if either has any hope of salvaging their legacy, they’ll need to figure out some way to save it.
 

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