Derek Fisher will rejoin NBA lockout talks on Friday in a move that could prove to be legal suicide for the players' own antitrust case. Fisher, who led the players' union as its president, had recused himself from the rekindled talks this week based on the fact that his participation would certainly lend credence to the NBA's argument that the dissolution of the union last week was a sham, a move made to open up a legal avenue but otherwise a false claim.
Yahoo!'s Adrian Wojnarowski reports that Fisher has considered the issues, and will rejoin talks on Friday with the hopes of getting a deal done. Players filed antitrust lawsuits about 10 days ago. And already Fisher is willing to put the legal play in danger because he thinks that a) a deal can get done, and b) he needs to be there to get it done.
It's an amazing leap of faith, really, to think that an NBA negotiating team that has dragged this lockout all the way past Thanksgiving will see reason this time. There have been threatening noises from the league (through predictable media channels) that without a deal to save the Christmas slate of games -- that'd mean a deal by the end of the weekend -- that the NBA would cancel the entire season. That's lunacy. Christmas is nice, and 66 games sounds better than 50, or 44. But so long as the league can hold a season that allows for a full playoff schedule, a season will remain on the table. The playoffs are the true gold mine the NBA can't easily abandon. We've seen what opening night means in the context of this stoppage (very little, as the league didn't move too much to save it). We've seen what all of November means. Now we're seeing what Christmas means; the act of negotiating itself lends some import to the slate of games, but until the league moves on the sticking points, it's empty concern.
That's why Fisher's leap of faith is so stunning. The players have what they consider to be leverage with the antitrust suit. One could argue that this leverage got the NBA back to the table this week without the league's "reset" proposal coming into play. No one can dispute that the players expected to extract more leverage than that out of the union's implosion; just consider that the players very likely could have gotten back to the table instead of seeing through the disclaimer of interest. Reports suggested that David Stern actually expected a counteroffer from the union 10 days ago.
If the league doesn't move substantially on Friday, the only leverage antitrust litigation would have provided would have been something the players could likely have gotten anyway. It's akin to spending a draft pick on a player who turns out to be 26 years old, and thus eligible to be signed as a free agent by anyone. It's like, my God, David Kahn is in charge at the players' union, and the full mid-level exception for luxury tax teams is Targuy Ngombo.
Consider all the lava that the league has sent players' way during the lockout. Fisher is betting against more of that by showing up Friday and putting the golden leverage at risk. He's betting that David Stern will be reasonable, that his own side (including Jeffrey Kessler, who Zach Lowe reports will participate) will be reasonable, that the seemingly minor issues that continue to divide the two sides can be resolved through compromise. He's betting that things will be different this time.
By bargaining instead of seeing through the antitrust suit, the players are doing this in a macro sense, too. The last six work stoppages in major American pro sports have been owner-induced lockouts. This is a pattern. The lockout is clearly a tool owners of sports franchises are willing and able to use to redeem concessions on pay and player freedom. It will continue unabated until a union of players find the legal path to victory over their employers. The NBA could have had it with the National Labor Relations Board complaint, but we'll never know, given that the union dissolved itself last week. The NBA could have had it with the antitrust suit seeking damages (not an injunction), but we'll likely never know thanks to Fisher's faith in post-Thanksgiving negotiations. We won't have learned a thing about the players' potential defenses against serial lockouts from this lengthy, costly NBA stoppage, if things proceed as they seem as if they will.
By opting to keep pushing for a deal no one likes, the players are betting that things will be different next time.
Michael Grange of the Sportsnet.ca has argued that the clearest path for players to reverse or stem the tide of owner wins in bargaining is to play the long game, to look for opportunities in negotiations to open up new paths of compensation and power. He's right, and there's nothing in the current proposal that helps that along. Perhaps that what will make this truly a blowout win for the owners, beyond the salary concessions and the new player movement limitations: the players and their lawyers have experienced this long lockout and have learned nothing about how to win in the future. They aren't even treading water at this point. The NBA players' union is well on its path toward becoming the NFL players' union. In a league that isn't nearly as popular or lucrative, that is one hell of a dangerous place to be.
By putting his faith in the place where faith has traditionally gone to die, Fisher feeds that. Let's hope to Hades his gut is right.
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