After Billy Hunter made the grand stand of marching out of Friday's bargaining session, refusing to negotiate below 52 percent of the NBA's revenue split, a strong movement within the Players Association emerged that vowed the union will never let him act so unilaterally again.
From superstars to midlevel players to rookies, there's an unmistakable push to complete the final elements of the system and take this labor deal to the union's 400-plus membership. Beyond that, there's an even larger movement to push Hunter, the Players Association's executive director, out the door once these labor talks are done. All hell's broken loose within the union, and no one is exactly sure how they're going to get a deal to the finish line.
"Billy can't just say it's 52 or nothing, and walk out again," one league source involved with the talks told Yahoo! Sports. "That will not happen again. It's time that the players get to make a decision on this, and there won't be another check lost before they do."
Rest assured, there's a vast gulf in the union, and it's growing with the passing of every day. Players Association president Derek Fisher's(notes) letter to the players convinced no one otherwise. NBA commissioner David Stern and the owners know it, and it's part of the reason they won't raise their offer of the BRI revenue split to 51 percent. There are system issues that need to be resolved for players, but this deal gets done at 50-50, and that's been true for a long, long time.
In the end, there are two courses for the union: Take the deal largely on the table or blow this up, decertify and lose the season fighting the NBA in the federal courts.
Only, it's too late to decertify. Everyone wanted to do it back in July when the lockout started, and Hunter refused. His decision had nothing to do with legal strategy, nothing to do with leverage or getting the best possible deal for the players. It had everything to do with what it always does with Hunter: self-preservation. He worried about losing power, losing his job, and he sold everyone on a toothless National Labor Relations Board claim that's going nowhere.
This union is threatening to implode, the push and pull of people wanting to cut a deal and those willing to keep warring over the final percentage points. Within the NBPA, the frustration with Hunter is this: Hunter knows where the deal will be made, but he's engaged in a smear campaign to frame Fisher as a sellout to the league. For Hunter, the end game is simple: Divide and conquer, and ultimately try to keep his own job beyond this labor agreement. This is a lousy deal for the players, and Hunter wants the blame everywhere else.
Yes, this has created doubts about Fisher, but it's hurt Hunter far more. Once, he had the stars on his side, and that's rapidly dissipating.
Hunter wants everyone to believe he's the last holdout on going to a 50-50 split, that everyone else – especially Fisher – is dragging him there. Suddenly, he's the tough guy standing alone. Suddenly, everyone else is caving and cutting side deals. Once it was the agents who wanted Hunter out. Now, there are star players lining up for a piece of him. They won't move until there's a deal done, but when they do, it will be swift, unruly and unpleasant.
"Right now, everyone has to choose sides: Billy or Derek," one player involved in the labor process told Yahoo! Sports. "How the [expletive] did it come to this?"
For starters, it comes from an unseemly brew of hubris, ego and insecurity. On every level, this has been a disgrace, an embarrassment for the players, and it's threatening to unravel the entire union. Most of all, the clock's ticking on getting a deal done. November's been slashed in the NBA regular season, and December's on deck.
Stern is holding back the hawkish owners who want to pull the 50 percent offer off the table. The hardline owners are indeed pushing Stern to drop the league's offer back under 50 percent as games are missed, but as one high-ranking official said: "The others realize that if you do that, you will lose a season. If the players will not take 50 now, they will not take less than 50 until they sit the whole year."
If there's one more round of game cancellations, owners are privately threatening what Stern publicly promised: a worse offer. That's why a deal needs to get done sooner than later. From inside and outside, the union is teetering.
And if Fisher has talked privately with league negotiators – Stern, deputy commissioner Adam Silver, San Antonio Spurs owner Peter Holt – here's the thing: So what? He's the president of the Players Association, and ultimately, Hunter works for the players.
If Fisher didn't tell his peers on the executive committee, that's a mistake. If he didn't tell Hunter, that's probably a mistake, too. It's clear trust broke down between them sometime ago, and make no mistake, that's on the both of them. Yet Fisher's job is to cut the best possible deal for the players, and pretending the owners will climb to 52 percent – even 51 – as players lose checks is irresponsible. To go down to 50-50 doesn't make you in the pocket of the NBA or corrupted. There's far more support for a deal there than Hunter wants everyone to believe, and that includes among the league's elite players.
The bigger issues are the motives of Hunter and his one-man wrecking crew of a PR consultant, David Cummings. Even the people suspicious of Fisher inside and outside the union – those who don't necessarily love him – believe that he's worked relentlessly with the lawyers, economists and players to do the job right. He hasn't mailed it in; just the opposite. This doesn't make him successful in the job, because the job is results oriented – just like his career as a player. There are a lot of reasons for a bad deal, and most go back to Hunter's refusal to decertify and gain some leverage with the owners.
Nevertheless, the end game of the players' deal doesn't make Fisher corrupt, on the take or a sellout of his peers. Only, Fisher knows in his heart what has happened, and maybe someday an agenda could come clear. Not now, though. Not with Hunter and his minions running this kind of low-rent garbage.
For now, Billy Hunter has the clearest agenda here: self-preservation. This job is too public now, too scrutinized to think smoke and mirrors can save you. Those days are done, and probably so is he.
To take on the NBA – Stern, Silver, the owners, the lawyers, the PR machine – everyone needs to be pulling the same way, with the same goals. As the union fought for its survival, so has Billy Hunter. Only, he's been chasing his own, and he's going to lose that fight, too.
Sooner than later, these labor talks need to get out of Fisher's and Hunter's hands, and into those of the rank and file. Whatever the civil war, the Players Association still belongs to the players. They should take it back, and take it back now.
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