It is no deep secret that the National Basketball Player's Association is in bad shape. After voting out questionably effective and ethical leader Billy Hunter in February 2013, the union has been on the hunt for a new executive director. It would figure that, with the search already having taken 13 months and another collective bargaining fight likely to start soon, the NBPA would rush to appoint that new leader soon.
However, it's unclear exactly who their top candidates might be or when the winner might be named, because those in charge of the search have not proffered much explanation of the criteria or logic behind the search. Although such practices do not ensure a poor choice, this process has apparently rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. In a guest post for TrueHoop, prominent agent Jeff Schwartz, president of Excel Sports Management (whose clients include Blake Griffin and Kevin Love), argues that the NBPA should restart its search entirely in order to increase transparency and bring in the opinions of more players and agents:
One of the most frequent complaints voiced by players and agents against the previous regime was the union's obsession with secretive practices and compartmentalization. The expectation moving forward was that the NBPA would start to insist on transparency in everyday business operations and in the search for its next leader. The NBPA, however, has unbelievably yielded again to opaque methods in choosing the next union leader. This approach can no longer be tolerated.
The only way to repair the damage that has already been done, in my view, is to bring an immediate stop to the current process and then start the executive-director search over from scratch with a much broader approach.
Transparency in NBPA matters is essential for the healthy functioning of the union and for restoring the confidence and trust of players, agents and the public. Aside from a short meeting at All-Star Weekend in New Orleans — which only a small percentage of players attended — information on the search process has been withheld from anyone beyond the union's nine-player executive committee and a handful of NBPA staffers. No one else has been provided information about who was considered for the position, what qualifications were sought from the candidates, and how those qualifications were valued. Aside from the executive committee, furthermore, no one else has been afforded the opportunity to meet with and/or screen any of the purported candidates.
The next executive director should not be selected by a small group operating in a cone of silence. Players and agents alike should be involved in the process. They should be asked to identify possible candidates, provide their input regarding candidates and, most importantly, contribute to the composition of a list of finalists that is openly distributed to players and agents for consideration and vetting before any candidate is put forward for a vote. The union's announcement at All-Star Weekend that the process will proceed with players receiving video presentations from the two reported finalists is a rushed process at best and a manipulation of the process at worst. Players and agents have the right and responsibility to meet and question candidates face-to-face.
As strange as this sounds to me, I recognize that the prospect of involving player agents in this process is seen as a thorny issue by some in the union. I would counter by saying that the interests of agents and the players they represent, both individually and collectively, are indivisibly intertwined. Agents stand with their clients on the front lines of CBA negotiations with the NBA and represent players' interests during the draft and in contract negotiations with NBA teams. As such, we are stakeholders in this sport on a parallel plane with our clients and should have a voice in determining the NBPA's next leader. And from a strictly economic standpoint, no one is better versed in understanding what it will take for a new executive director to be successful in negotiating with the NBA than the agents.
It's worth reading Schwartz's article in full, because his points are fairly complicated and depend on each other for full effect. However, the various facets of his arguments also obscure some much-needed distinctions. Issues that might seem related are actually very different.
Schwartz's general point is a great one: the NBPA needs to inform its members of the concepts and criteria on which it will base its hiring process. Ideally, executive committee members and team representatives would have collected various thoughts from players and reported back to leadership with the traits they wanted most. If that's not happening, it should be rectified immediately. A union can only succeed if its members feel a stake in the organization and believe that leaders are listening to their needs and involving them in the process. Otherwise, you get a situation much like that which existed under Hunter: factions within the union arguing with each other, governance by fiat, etc. No one should want to repeat those same mistakes. (I hope it goes without saying that the union should explain to candidates why they are no longer being considered — that is just a basic courtesy in any field or job search.)
Yet such a situation does not call for a complete do-over of the hiring process and affording non-members a greater say. No union turns its hiring of an executive director into a free-for-all, both because rank-and-file members usually don't know the extent of the job description and because a consolidated process makes it easier to avoid public disagreements and complaints. A union succeeds when it appears unified — it's right there in the name. Collective bargaining talks are not straight-up arguments based in logic. They are often about which side has the greatest will or leverage, and a union extracts that power from its willingness to stand together when management wants them to give in.
This point brings us to Schwartz's weirdest argument:
All the proof you need can be found in the limitations of the current CBA. If the union and executive committee members had listened to some of us during labor negotiations in 2011, perhaps today our players would be rightfully sharing a larger piece of the NBA economic pie.
Contrary to Schwartz's protestations, there is absolutely no proof that following these agents' advice — in short, to decertify the union and get entrenched for a long fight, either at the start of the lockout or in the fall, the latter of which would have led to a lost season — would have helped players. In fact, decertification in November could have been a disaster due to the internal divisions that already existed, causing increasingly public fighting that might have damaged the NBPA's standing even further. (It's almost certainly Hunter's fault that the union was ever in such a messy position to begin with.) If the union had undergone a major crisis in the midst of a lockout, it's possible that the league would have extracted even more concessions than they did. This might not have happened, of course, but the same goes for Schwartz's attempts at hindsight. He presents a speculative history as if it were prophecy fulfilled.
That said, Schwartz does have a point about agents having a useful and interesting perspective on union issues. The problem is that involving them in these decisions (i.e. making them negotiating partners, if even informally) significantly alters the conception of the NBPA. The stereotype of agents as smarmy rats who use their clients only for profit is usually untrue, and Schwartz is correct that his interests often coincide with those of the players. But an agent is an adviser to a player, not the player itself. In a philosophical sense, the union exists to consolidate player power in order to provide everyone — most crucially players who do not make eight-figure salaries — with a stronger voice. While agents can help players achieve what they want, they would take some of that negotiating power away from the people who constitute the union in the first place. Any union has adjacent figures whose interests coincide with those of the members (e.g. spouses, other family members, etc.), but any affected party would never try to put herself on the same level as an actual union member, no matter her level of expertise.
The NBPA exists to serve players, but it also empowers them. Schwartz's idea would turn the union into something closer to an advocacy group with player involvement, not a body that gives players more control over the decisions that affect them. While we have no reason to believe that Schwartz has anything but the players' best interests at heart, we can question his methods. If part of the problem with Billy Hunter's NBPA was that members didn't know what was going on, we don't need a solution that asks players to hand power to a new interest group. The union itself must demand accountability of its leaders. Otherwise, it's just another organization in which those at the top benefit in unfair relation to those who do the vast majority of the work.
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