N.B.A. Players Voting on Step Toward Dissolving Union

N.B.A. players are considering dissolution of their union as another means to combat sweeping changes to their labor agreement. The effort may ultimately prove to be more theatrical than substantive.

NBAA vote is under way to authorize decertification of the National Basketball Players Association, according to agents and others involved in the process.

At least two teams have voted unanimously to authorize decertification, according to the Sports Business Journal, which first reported the story on Monday, citing anonymous sources.

More teams will be voting in the coming weeks. If a majority of players agree, it will give union leaders added leverage in collective bargaining talks with the N.B.A.

Spokesmen for the union and the N.B.A. declined to comment.

The authorization vote is only a preliminary step. The actual vote to disband the union probably would not happen until late June, just before the collective bargaining agreement expires, and before the owners can impose a lockout.

Gabriel Feldman, a law professor at Tulane and director of the school’s sports law program, called decertification a “doomsday scenario.” The real value of the vote is the threat it represents.

“It’s their nuclear weapon,” Feldman said. “If you have to use the nuclear weapon, then you’ve really reached a bad spot.”

He added: “The goal here would not be to use the weapon. The goal is just to be prepared in case you need it down the road.”

Decertifying the union would prevent a lockout, but at great risk. The league would be able to impose work rules, and the players would be surrendering all their union protections, as well as the benefits they have won in the past, such as minimum contracts, guaranteed salaries and their pension.

Once the union was disbanded, the players would be able to sue the owners under antitrust laws and challenge the league’s restrictions on salaries and player movement. Without a collectively bargained contract, those rules would be considered illegal restraints of trade.

The real value of the decertification vote is to provide players more leverage at the bargaining table, where talks have been stalled for months.

Owners are pushing for drastic changes, including a potential 38 percent rollback in player salaries, a hard salary cap and the elimination of fully guaranteed contracts. The players have rejected the league’s proposal and are advocating more modest changes. N.B.A. owners have similarly dismissed the players’ ideas.

Mark Bartelstein of Priority Sports and Entertainment, which represents more than 40 N.B.A. players, said he was advising his clients to vote in favor of decertification. He expected a unanimous vote.

“It’s not something anybody really wants to do,” Bartelstein said, “but you’ve got to keep the option available to you.”

By abandoning their union, the players would effectively be choosing the protections provided by antitrust law over those provided by labor law. Legally, they cannot claim both, according to Feldman.

The owners would probably challenge the move in court by arguing that the decertification “is a sham” and “that the union still exists, that it’s still representing the players and that the players are trying to get the benefits of labor law and antitrust law at the same time,” Feldman said.

That is why the union must tread carefully now and avoid the appearance that decertification is intended only as a bargaining strategy.

Decertification was discussed but never pursued during the 1998 N.B.A. lockout, which lasted more than six months and nearly wiped out the season. The players voted against decertification during their 1995 labor talks with the league.

The tactic was most effectively used by the N.F.L. Players Association, which decertified in November 1989. The players successfully sued the league under antitrust laws and in 1992 gained unrestricted free-agency rights for the first time.

It took more than three years to resolve the lawsuit. That is why it is considered unlikely that N.B.A. players will pursue the strategy.

“I think the endgame here is to use this as a bargaining chip and just get a deal done at the table,” Feldman said. Pursuing an antitrust suit is “a long, expensive process,” he said. “It’s also a risky process, because if you lose the lawsuit, you’ve wasted a lot of time and money, and you’ve gotten nowhere.”

Posted by: HOWARD BECK


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