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Tuesday, November 21, 2006
A Revolution Against David Stern and Creeping Orwellianism?
Dictatorships are never popular, at least in hindsight. They always seem to crumble as people tire of losing their freedom and being told what to do. Perhaps that is why Victor Hugo once said,"When dictatorship is a fact, revolution is a right."
While events over the last week do not necessarily suggest a brewing "revolution" against NBA commissioner David Stern, they do indicate that professional sports' most powerful and arguably controlling commissioner may be headed for some rough waters. Here are some of the key events:
I. Nutrition, Power, and Going Around Collective Bargaining
As detailed by Liz Robbins in the New York Times, the National Basketball Players Association, without the permission or acquiescence of the NBA, has entered into a one-year promotional agreement with Abbott Nutrition. The terms of the deal are not terribly earth-shattering, but the motivations of the NBPA are: the NBPA is tired of the NBA unilaterally imposing rules, such as with the dress code and the new ball:
The union’s unilateral action — albeit over energy bars and protein shakes — comes as [NBPA Executive Director Billy] Hunter is voicing strong objections to the N.B.A.’s actions. He said he was frustrated that the league had not consulted the union on decisions ranging from the dress code to the new ball to the officials’ crackdown on complaining. If the agreement with EAS is not a pre-emptive strike, then it is a sign of an increasingly strained relationship between the union and the N.B.A.II. Working Conditions, Race, and Unfair Labor Charges
The NBA's insistence on using a new kind of basketball with different microfibers has drawn harsh rebuke from a number of players. Basically, a lot of players hate the feel of the new ball and believe it is hurting their game. But the NBA and Stern in particular believe the new ball looks nice and is a better visual. Henry Abbott over at True Hoop has all of the details.
Last week, Mitch Lawrence of the New York Daily News reported that the NBPA plans to file an unfair labor charge over this new ball. The gist of their beef is that the ball adversely affects their working conditions. Lawrence reports that the NBPA is also opposed to various other new rules implemented by the NBA without the players' consent. Some of the rules seem like they belong in George Orwell's 1984:
When the Knicks played the Wizards at the Garden last night, there was a newly assigned official who was at the arena for the expressed purpose of watching for players pulling their jerseys out of their pants when they came out of the game. As of this season, that move is illegal and subject to fines. Those same set of eyes were looking for players wearing rubber bands with their names on them. Anyone caught displaying those would be subject to a call from the league, with a warning to stop. That same spy was busy during the playing of "The Star-Spangled Banner," watching for players chewing gum and shifting as they stood in line, which have been outlawed . . .Billy Hunter had some especially harsh words for Stern in Lawrence's piece:
"I've never seen a group of rules that has upset the whole group of players like these have. I normally have to really work on galvanizing the players for our next collective bargaining period. Not this time. I've heard from all the marquee ballplayers . . . Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash. Our guys are feeling stifled."As reported in this week's Street and Smith's Sports Business Journal, agent Bill Strickland seems to agree with Hunter that Stern has too much unilateral power: “I definitely think he has too much power. ... We’ve had situations where we’ve talked about freedom of speech issues relative to tattoos and content of responses to questions postgame, so I don’t think there’s any question about it."
III. NBA Owners Growing Tired of Stern's Unilateralism
The greatest challenge to Stern might come from within. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, when Charlotte Bobcats owner Robert Johnson--arguably one of the most respected and successful businesspersons in America--challenged Stern at the latest Board of NBA governors meeting, Stern "went ballistic." Here are the details:
The muzzling of Mark Cuban by the NBA did not go over unanimously at the recent Board of Governors meeting. We hear Bobcats owner Bob Johnson, while not necessarily leaping to Cuban's defense, did ask David Stern if such draconian measures - giving the Commish the power to suspend any owner who disparages the league publicly - were in everyone's best interests. And shouldn't this be handled by a committee of owners instead of by Stern alone?Will Stern be ousted? There is no tangible evidence, but his recent behavior suggests that his dictatorial powers might have gone too far. Embarrassing Bob Johnson in front of his fellow owners was probably not a good idea and will seemingly have some consequences down-the-line.
No matter the outcome, it's good to see the NBPA become more vigilant in protecting the players' interests. The conclusion of my article The Reckless Pursuit of Dominion: A Situational Analysis of the NBA and Diminishing Player Autonomy, 8 University of Pennsylvania Journal of Labor & Employment Law 819 (2006) advocates such an approach. We'll see how far they are willing to fight.
Update: See True Hoop, Jones on the NBA, RaptorsAddict, and PistonsForum, for some thoughtful reactions. Also see the comments below, which are terrific (and thank you all for taking the time to comment, it is much appreciated).