NBA agents want union to decertify

There’s growing restlessness within the NBA’s most powerful agents, an uneasiness with the strategies of Billy Hunter and the Players Association. What’s the strategy? How do we stave off economic Armageddon? This was the reason the agents came to New York for a meeting on Friday, and why they left an unmistakable impression on Hunter: Sooner than later, we want to decertify, file an antitrust suit and throw some fear into the owners.

Hunter wants to wait out the rulings on the union’s filings with the National Labor Relations Board in Washington, but there’s little hope that’s gained traction. Hunter doesn’t seem willing to go the decertification route until after the union and NBA meet again in August, and probably not prior to September.

Billy Hunter hopes the league's recent audit convinces owners that their own discipline can lead to greater profit for them.
(NBAE/Getty Images)

Most of the agents see a union with no strategy, and NBA owners simply waiting until the players’ checks stop arriving in November so they can hammer the most one-sided collective bargaining agreement in history down the players’ throats.

“Right now, it’s a respectful disagreement with [the agents] and Billy,” an agent briefed on the meeting told Yahoo! Sports. “But it’s getting to a ‘[expletive]-you’ point. We will blow this thing up.”

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.

“Until now,” one prominent agent told Yahoo! Sports, “the union’s strategy has been basically hoping [NBA commissioner] David Stern wakes up one morning in a good mood, and decides he wants to cut a fair deal for the players.”

The way the agents see it, Hunter can stay in an advisory role after decertification the way that DeMaurice Smith did with the NFL players union. But decertification does cut into his power, his influence and his role in the process. And that’s true for the executive board of the players association, including president Derek Fisher(notes). Sooner than later, powerbrokers Arn Tellem, Mark Bartelstein, Bill Duffy, Andy Miller and others want a stronger, more direct hand in the fight.

They can get the votes needed to decertify the union among their players, and do it with or without Hunter’s blessing. That’s an improbable end game, but they have no interest in letting Hunter negotiate to the wire in December, when the owners will have all the leverage, and the players living paycheck to paycheck crack.

After the meeting with agents on Friday, an email went out from Hunter to the players on the basketball-related income (BRI) windfall due them. Each player will get an extra 8 percent of his 2010-11 salary this summer based on the revenue the league generated a season ago, adding a little more to the lockout war chest.

“Beyond issues relating to the escrow and the guarantee, the audit results confirm the larger point that we have stressed with the owners since we began the collective bargaining process two years ago,” Hunter wrote in the email. “Quite simply, if the owners believe they need harsher restrictions on player salaries, they need only look to themselves, not to the players. On their own, operating under our longtime soft cap system, the owners have brought their player compensation costs down below 57 percent for the first time since the 1990s. …The owners accomplished this result by making tougher individual decisions and by exercising their own independent business judgment. This trend can continue for the owners, and it can be done without the radical overhaul of our current soft cap system they continue to seek in collective bargaining.

“We hope they will recognize this reality and return to the bargaining table with a more reasonable outlook and perspective.”

Only, the owners won’t, and Billy Hunter knows that. Diplomacy has gotten the union nowhere, and the agents believe trying much more is a waste of time.

“We have one weapon left, and that’s decertification,” a prominent agent said. “We need to use it.”

Adrian Wojnarowski is the NBA columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Adrian a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Saturday, Jul 23, 2011