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The men behind the curtain want to pull the string on decertification

Jul 24, 2011, 11:00 AM EDT

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“Let the poets write that he had the tools of greatness, but the voices of his better angels were shouted down by his obsessive need to win.”

The West Wing

This lockout is perceived as two sides in a standoff with one another, owners and players. In reality, it’s six sides. You have the rich owners, the poor owners, the moderate owners, the superstar players, the role players, and… the agents. When it gets down to it, the agents are the men behind the curtain in this little play. Those escalating salaries that the owners themselves agreed to with ridiculous, long contracts? The owners are on the hook for them, those were the product of the owners’ decisions. But they were created by the work of agents, forever raising value, forever edging the bottom line (and subsequently their cut) higher and higher. It is the agents advising the players on their money to prepare for a lockout, it is the agents keeping the players in line to whatever degree they can.

Let’s be clear, this is not to vilify agents. If we’re making a list of “money-grubbing” and “reasonable” we’ve got everyone involved on one side and pretty much no one on the other. That’s how this works, and how it would work with any group of people and if you think you and your cohorts wouldn’t do the same, then let’s have a long drawn out conversation about the value of financial success and philanthropy. But let’s not because this is a sports blog and that’s boring.

The agents are simply doing their job. The problem is, they’ve begun to get antsy. See, they don’t like this patient, reasonable waiting game Billy Hunter has decided to pursue. They want to get aggressive. They want to use the guns they have. And the one gun they have? Is decertification and a pursuit in the courts. Doing so has two effects. It represents a remote but distinctly aggressive threat against the owners to coerce them into surrendering the high ground and opening up a very real negotiation that will result in the middle ground the players are pursuing. It will royally tick off both David Stern and the ownership group, settling in for a tense, vicious, and deeply personal conflict, even more so than the lockout currently exists in.

And that’s totally the cabinet they want to open. From Yahoo! Sports:

The owners are counting on panic to take over the union once the players start missing checks. That’s when the owners want to cut a deal, when the players are most vulnerable and fearful of losing a full season’s salary. The players risk getting the same lousy deal next year after already losing a year’s salary.

Essentially, it’s come down to this: Hunter is still selling diplomacy, but the agents want to commence fighting. No one expects the league to seriously negotiate issues until they fear the courts could rule against them. The owners want what they want – hard cap, rollback on salaries and guaranteed profits – and they aren’t interested in compromises. The longer the union waits to decertify and file an antitrust suit, the less chance there is of getting a reasonable agreement and saving the season.

via NBA agents want union to decertify – NBA – Yahoo! Sports.

Woj’s article has all sorts of wonderful news, like that the agents are losing faith in Hunter, which causes a fracture and could move Hunter to the fringes of the fold. Think of that as if the old war hawks had captured the President’s ear during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The good news in that scenario would be that none of you would be complaining about the Miami Heat right now since it would still glow in the dark. The bad news is that it would have meant World War III. Hunter is the voice of reason. He’s being patient and keeping lines of communication open.

Hunter’s taken a beating because in how this has rolled out, he looks like a punching bag. He’s not actively attacking the owners, simply holding the line on the barricades and keeping the siege at bay. The agents think the best defense is a good offense. But Hunter’s way is a long-term approach. It favors reasonable discussion and business negotiations, the core of this debate which has moved sadly towards dramatics and ideology. Eventually, the owners will cease rabble-rousing and come back to the table for a real conversation, and if the union’s efforts to gain employment overseas or through other means of generating income are successful, the players will be stronger for it.

The players need to be Johnny Cash. Steady like a freight train, sharp like a razor. The owners want them Bombs Over Baghdad. But as Chris Ballard pointed out when discussing Michael Redd (the exact kind of contract the owners are trying to protect themselves from) in “Art of a Beautiful Game,” that means sometimes you hit the enemy, sometimes you hit civilians.

The length of this unnecessary lockout depends on cooler heads prevailing. If these agents, who run this world more than is let on, storm the gates and stage a coup, the fans might as well flee for the neighboring nations of “Other Sports Land.” Because we won’t be seeing the league outside of a courtroom for a good, long time.


  1. bosutton - Jul 24, 2011 at 4:43 PM

    This seems like a pretty frivolous argument to me. The players should go Billy Hunter’s route because it’s more civilized, more moderate. Of course the assumption is that moderation is a good thing in and of itself. I think if you compare the two approaches there is a strong argument to be made for the players being aggressive and decertifying.
    If the only negative of this ploy is that David Stern’s feelings get hurt it seems like a pretty low threshold for the positives of this idea to overcome to be worthwhile. The owner’s are apparently going for the throat of the players. They’re unwilling to provide honest accounting numbers. David Stern has already been apart of one lockout that lost games. He seems far less willing to compromise this time. The NBA experienced 5% growth last year. I’m not saying the league is in great shape, I’m saying the only real discussions to be had our revenue sharing and BRI percentage for the players. And the players only really have control over the BRI portion of that.
    So if you’re already dealing with an incredibly hostile opponent why wouldn’t you at least give yourself the nuclear option. The owner’s are planning on not negotiating until they have the upper-hand, the players need a way to counter that. Moderation only works if your opponent is willing to play ball. This is the classic prisoner’s dilemma in economics/international relations. If both sides cooperate than both sides do well for themselves. If one side negotiates in good faith and the other does not than the side that does not negotiate in good faith does even better for themselves while the side trying to be honest loses. The final option is both sides play hardball and while they don’t do as well as they could if they both trusted each other, they certainly do better than if they trust the other side in get betrayed. I can’t imagine the owners aren’t willing to screw the players, and nothing you said would point to that likelihood. So I ask you why would they put themselves at risk when they have other options?

  2. udontknowjaq - Jul 24, 2011 at 6:41 PM

    Poor NBA owners? Really!!

  3. mosdamz - Jul 25, 2011 at 10:16 PM

    The owners had no problem collecting payment for my season tickets on time last week!

  4. yikes123 - Jul 26, 2011 at 5:46 PM

    I think audited number have been provided according to SI and Sporting News and other sources. And both sides are having a pretty tough time cooperating since the ten (10) sports agents/agencies who control 69% of NBA player contracts (total over One Billion $) have inserted themselves into the negotiations saying they are going to “blow this expletive thing up” because they want a different outcome.

    Those ten sports agents don’t jump, shoot or dribble for millions, they just do the contracts. So why are they inserting themselves and who are they to threaten the league, the teams and the UNION?……. and…more alarming… they have the power to influence the players votes…..ten slick guys who are making tens of millions of dollars in commissions off the players can screw up the game, thousands of businesses, tens of thousands of jobs and most import…. millions of fans?

    Someone should investigate their power and how they are using it. NLRB might have something to say about their “influence”.

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