NEW YORK — Larry Fleisher, general counsel of the National Basketball Players Association, says it will take a December court date to resume the stalled negotiations with the league for a new collective bargaining agreement.
The players filed a lawsuit in a federal court in Newark, N.J., in September, claiming the NBA was in violation of antitrust laws by allowing the 1987 college draft, permitting teams to invoke a right of first refusal and allowing teams to maintain payrolls via the salary cap this season. Those three items were part of the last collective bargaining agreement that expired when the Lakers won the NBA championship in June.
But Fleisher says those conditions will not be part of any new agreement and that the league is thus arbitrarilly limiting the free movement of players. The general counsel said he expects a decision on the case Dec. 12 and that there will be no meetings with the league before then.
"There are no negotiations," Fleisher said. "They effectively ended Oct. 12 when the owners met (in Dallas) and stated they would not enter any agreement without those three restraints in place."
The NBA, on the other hand, presents a more positive picture of the negotiations. Russell Granik, the executive vice president of the NBA, said he wants to meet before Dec. 12.
"The status is in limbo right now," said Granik, four days before the 41st NBA season was secheduled to start Nov. 6. "We are in litigation right now and there aren't any meetings scheduled although we would like to have some and hope to have some."
The NBA has contended that the players are trying to negotiate through the courts and that the league has the right to conduct business under the old agreement until a new one is signed. Should the league win -- that is should U.S. District Judge Dickinson Debevoise rule antitrust laws have not been violated--the union would be forced to return to the bargaining table.
The two sides have met nine times since June, but have been unable to come close to resolving the three main issues. The players say those items must be abolished; the league says they must remain in some form. The talks will remain stalled until someone blinks.
If it all seems an eerie reminder of the NFL strike, it should. The NFL players struck initially when owners refused to discuss their demand that four-year players be declared unfettered free agents. After losing the strike, the NFL union filed an antitrust lawsuit on similiar grounds to the the one filed by the NBA players.
By going to court first, the NBA players have gained some time to evaluate their position. The NFL strike was unpopular with the fans and it is unlikely that the highly-paid NBA players (with an average salary of $510,000 according to the union) will generate much sympathy with fans.
Fleisher said emphatically a week before the season was set to begin that the players are not considering a strike.
"You can ask me 42 different ways, but you will still come up with the same answer: We are not thinking about a strike," he said.
So it seems the season will begin as schedule with the two sides waiting for a ruling in New Jersey. The last time the collective bargaining agreement expired, in 1982, a new pact was not signed until April of the 1982-83 season.
Those creative negotiations created the salary cap and the right of first refusal to help league bail out four teams that were in danger of going bankrupt. Fleisher says the NBA is now on sound financial footing and the sacrifices by the players are no longer necessary.
"Those agreements were put in place because the league was having financial problems," he said. "We came up with those creative measures to save the league. They are saying now, you agreed to it let's keep it in place."
"We are prepared, particularly on the right of first refusal, to talk about significant modifications, but we are not prepared to scrap any of them," said Granik. "There is a middle ground, where you can change it. They have not been willing to talk about a middle ground."
In the long run it may be the fans who are left in the middle.