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NBA Lockout: Players Light Up The Torches, Threaten To Burn Down Talks

Decertification has popped back up in NBA lockout talks. While anti-trust litigation is probably the only way players can stop owners' advances, the circumstances are all wrong this time around.

The players know that the time to assert some power, to show a glimpse of the leverage they have tucked away has passed. The time to talk decertification was July ... and August ... and maybe September. But it's November, the season's already been damaged, NBA lockout talks are still happening now and then and this decertification talk could, by all accounts, torch the rest of the season.

According to reports by the New York Times' Howard Beck and Yahoo!'s Adrian Wojnarowski, as many as 50 players participated in two calls this week outside of the scope of the National Basketball Players Association to discuss decertification. NBPA director Billy Hunter has declined to use decertification, instead attempting to win an injunction against the NBA via a complaint to the National Labor Relations Board. (A decision from the NLRB is still forthcoming.) Meanwhile, the NBA and players' union have held fairly regular talks, and have made progress on most, if not all, issues.

But according to the reports, a set of players have had enough. Anger over the level of concessions already offered and fear that more will be coming when talks restart Saturday has the players agitating for a reboot. From Beck:

The 50-player faction is essentially demanding that the union make no more concessions. That means holding firm for a 52.5 percent share of league revenue - as the union has done so far - and rejecting any new restrictions on contracts and free agency.

If the union compromises too far in either area, it could trigger the decertification drive. The mere threat could handcuff union officials at the bargaining table. Or, in theory, it could motivate the owners to compromise to avoid legal purgatory.

Because lines in the sand have been so successful so far, right? When the players held tough at 53 percent, talks got nowhere ... and players eventually dropped their revenue split proposal to 52 percent. Does anyone really expect the owners to respond to this "threat" by cowering and dropping their own offer down to meet the players? Or will owners see division in the labor ranks, have a celebratory round of high-fives and dig those Italian loafers right in?

Players and agents still pushing for decertification significantly underrate how willing some of these owners are to torch the entire season. It's the hockey example all over again. NBA owners are in this for the long haul; they can afford to drop a season's worth of revenue if it means getting a favorable deal for the next 20. (Consider that almost two dozen teams are losing money once you account for expenses, and it becomes even more obvious.) Can NBA players, with an average career length of four years, give up as long as it will take to see this through?

This is only a commendable idea by players if those players intend to go all the way. Leverage? Forget leverage. As I argued Thursday, the only way players in any major American sport will truly beat owners is to go all the way on anti-trust litigation. Until a set of players successfully knocks back a sports league in the courts, the gradual degradation of "players' rights" will continue.

But it takes time, will and the right resources. This little uprising has none of those on its side. Beck and Woj report that the players included an unnamed anti-trust lawyer on at least one of the calls. I'm guessing that man wasn't Jeffrey Kessler, the union attorney who has been involved in most, if not all, decertification processes in major American sports over the past 25 years. (If it was Kessler, the union's in real trouble.) Whoever the players are talking to ... is that the right guy to be doing this? Do you trust a labor lawyer who would meet with players behind a union's back? Should players trust such a labor lawyer?

If the players successfully decertify -- in itself a massive undertaking fraught with peril -- won't Billy Hunter and Derek Fisher peace out on the process? These two guys have spent more time on this issue than I imagine the 50 NBA players on the decert calls have combined and tripled. If you decertify, you lose that help. Unity is all the way out of the window. You're going into battle without some of your best weapons. Even if players have little faith in Hunter, Fisher or even Kessler, there's little question that they are the most experienced commanders the union has. Casting them aside in some angry uprising seems counterproductive.

Decertification and anti-trust litigation are the right responses to owners who refuse to play fair, but they need to be done in a way that maximizes players' power. This is the opposite of that. The best case scenario is that Hunter and Fisher assume that the 50 players on the calls have no teeth and continue to negotiate with the league. The worst case is that the owners get big eyes, continue to hold at 50 percent with serious salary cap changes, and wait for the fuse to burn out. If the players are successful in booting Hunter in a hobbled decertification push, the season will be toast, and next year will be under threat. Perhaps in the end the players can actually come out ahead, but I doubt it. The fight needs to happen the right way to be successful, and this method looks completely backwards and counterproductive.


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