Once the lockout ended and both sides held their ceremonial press conference I still wanted to learn more; what really happened during the second longest labor battle in NBA history?
Earlier this month I had the unique opportunity to hear answers to everyone’s burning questions while listening to the NBA Players Association Executive Director, G. William “Billy” Hunter, address the Mount Morris Community Association in Harlem, New York.
In the intimate setting of the Harlem Branch Public Library’s auditorium, Hunter talked candidly about his life as a collegiate and professional athlete, career as an attorney, and his role as the leader of the NBAPA.
Here’s what Hunter had to say…
The Early Years
Hunter has been leading athletes since his college football days at Syracuse University at a time when he acknowledges it was “important for athletes to stand up and make a statement.”
Going into his junior year, the team was scheduled to play southern schools that had segregated seating in their stadiums. He initiated a petition stating that the players refused to play unless the seating was integrated. Not only did he convince his teammates and student-athletes from other sports to sign the petition, but his efforts garnered the attention of the Syracuse administration. Once it was determined that he was an influential athlete, he was elevated to team captain for his remaining two seasons.
Following his collegiate career, he entered the NFL as a free agent earning $20,000 per season. After stints with the Washington Redskins, Baltimore Colts, and Miami Dolphins, Hunter earned his Juris Doctor degree from Howard University.
Hunter’s legal career has included serving as a prosecutor in the Alameda County District Attorney’s office, Chief-Assistant in the San Francisco District Attorney’s office, and an appointment as United States Attorney for the Northern District of California. There’s no question that Hunter’s tenure as an athlete and federal prosecutor prepared him for the day that the NBAPA came calling in 1996.
The NBAPA and Collective Bargaining Agreements
During Hunter’s 16 years at the helm of the NBPA, he has negotiated three collective bargaining agreements. The first in 1998 where there was a seven-month lockout, the second in 2005, and the most recent in 2011 that ended after a five-month labor battle.
Hunter notes, “Of the three collective bargaining deals that were negotiated, this was the most difficult, most stressful and taxing.” And he added that a lot of it has to do with being a victim of his own success.
Under the previous CBA the players were receiving 57% of Basketball Related Income, which Hunter explained is not 57% of every dollar that the league earns. He clarified that the players were not getting the gross, which was widely reported. Instead $600 million is deducted off the top for expense related revenues and then there is a split after that.
Hunter explained that the league was demanding that the players roll back from 57% to 39%. This reduction would mean $950 million cut per season. And according to Hunter, “There was no way we would take a $950 million cut.”
Hunter added that the deal they ended up cutting, even though they rolled back six percentage points, because of the growth and the revenues are much larger the players are now getting a smaller percentage of a larger pot.
“Under the last deal the players’ salaries grew collectively at about $65-70 million per year and under the current deal the salaries will still grow at about $100 million per year collectively. The idea is that by the sixth year of this deal the average salary should be up around $7 million where it’s currently at $5.6 – 5.7 million.”
The 2011 Lockout and its Critics
When asked about the criticism that he faced during the lockout, Hunter stated, “There’s no question that I took a lot of hits. There aren’t many blacks in leadership positions especially in sports. I don’t expect it to be easy and nobody ever told me that it would be. Fortunate enough for me the kind of experience I’ve had prepared me for this.”
He went on to say, “In my case it’s all about doing the job and it’s not about me; that’s the problem when you get too far in front and it becomes you then you have a problem. I think the players know with me it’s all about the relationship with the players; they know, trust and respect me. That’s why we were able to do what we did.”
“I’m sure the owner’s didn’t appreciate the stance that I took and a lot of people didn’t think I would do the things that I did. I think as the deal goes on it will turn out to be a lot better than people portray,” said Hunter.
Disclaiming Union Interest and Attorney David Boies
Hunter explained that up until 1995 you didn’t have to dissolve a union in order to sue an employer in federal court and assert antitrust rights. In 1995, it was ruled that unions had to decertify and you couldn’t be a union and sue. Once you decertify then the question is recertification; if it works and convinces the owners to come to the table – great, but if it doesn’t you’re in trouble.
“We are being pressured to decertify in July and I am saying no way we haven’t negotiated to the impasse so we are going to continue to negotiate,” he said.
Hunter shared that the agents were saying the only leverage that he had was decertification, which meant to dissolve the union. They thought there’s no way that the players could withstand and hang as long as the owners because the owners’ wealth and sooner or later they would break the players.
“We knew that another issue to get over was ‘sham decertification.’ You just can’t decertify because you’re trying to leverage management, and if you’re doing it for that purpose it is illegal and the court will look through it.”
Hunter and the players opted for federal mediation, which didn’t work; and they filed an action before the National Labor Relations Board, but the matter was held up while federal appointments were still being made.
Eventually, Commissioner Stern issued the take it or leave ultimatum and that meant the negotiations were over. Hunter explained that rather than decertifying they disclaimed, because decertifying means that your union is barred by law from reconstituting for at least 12 months.
Hunter admits that he surprised everyone when he brought in attorney David Boise, and many were wondering how he did that.
Hunter told the story of meeting with a legal colleague who he hadn’t seen in years and offered to call Boies to see if he was available and interested to join the civil case. Hunter acknowledged that he thought of Boise, but he knew that he most recently represented the NFL owners during their civil litigation.
After a series of secret meetings, Hunter recalls Boies saying that he had been following the labor situation and he thought it was unfair situation, they have all of the weapons and you need me to help level the playing field. “When Boies came into the case it made a difference,” added Hunter.
The Next Chapter
Hunter stated that he has never given any thought to his legacy as the NBAPA executive director; he said that he always focuses on real time.
Good Night Sports Fans,