President James, Why Not? The NBPA Saga

Since the 2011 lockout with the owners, the NBA Players Association has been in a constant state of turmoil. During the lockout, Billy Hunter served as executive director while Derek Fisher was President of the union. The work stoppage lasted until November, and play did not resume until Christmas in 2011. Privately, many players blamed Hunter for mishandling the situation to the point where the players were forced to negotiate a deal in order to recuperate most of their 2011-12 salaries. During the lockout meetings, many prominent stars attended and voiced their opinions increasingly. This group included LeBron James.

Now, instead of being able to focus on the on court product and welfare of the players that the union protects, the union is embroiled in a dizzying legal dispute between Hunter and Fisher. The story is very long and detailed, but the main points stand out. After butting heads during the lockout, Hunter called for a vote that would force Derek Fisher’s resignation as President. However, Fisher stuck to his guns, refusing to resign and pushing hard for a independent inquiry into Hunter’s actions as executive director. While Hunter was not found guilty of any criminal activity as executive director, he established a pattern of nepotism and unprofessional favors. When the union dug in, it wasn’t pretty: “[r]eleased in January, the review conducted by the law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP criticized Hunter for hiring family members and friends. It said he knew his 2010 contract extension wasn’t properly ratified by union rules, and raised questions about everything from travel expenses to the amount he spent on gifts.” Hunter, more than once or twice, went out of his way to give family members high paying jobs while also skirting the edges of rules regarding his personal conduct as executive director.

The story doesn’t quite end there, though. After January’s report, Billy Hunter was, finally, unanimously voted out as head of the union, 24-0. In May, Hunter filed a lawsuit suing the NBPA and Derek Fisher for allegedly conspiring to defame Hunter and breach his contract. Essentially, Hunter accused Fisher of once supporting him, and then going behind his back and rigging an internal investigation against him. Furthermore, Hunter claimed that Fisher negotiated without Hunter during the lockout, alienating the executive director from the union. In early July, the NBPA requested that Hunter’s lawsuit be thrown out, explaining that the charges were erroneous and would be fought swiftly.

Was Derek Fisher conspiring against Billy Hunter? Probably not.
Was Derek Fisher conspiring against Billy Hunter? Probably not.

So what should you, a casual (or serious) NBA fan take away from all of this? A couple things. From a broad standpoint, the owners have all the power over the players. That was clear before, but since the lockout and how things have played out after, we can see how easy it was for the owners to twist the players’ arms. After receiving 57% of basketball related income (BRI) on the last collective bargaining agreement (CBA), the players shot all the way down to 50% in 2011. This seems kind of significant because the players, you know, play the basketball. Furthermore, the NBPA clearly went to all kinds of shit and is in need of fixing. I don’t think Derek Fisher is necessarily innocent in all this (it does seem like he did a little under the table maneuvering with the owners), but it’s quite clear that Billy Hunter was the problem. He established a painfully obvious pattern of harmful nepotism that benefited him and his family hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars. It may not be illegal, but the union was sure as hell right to fire him.

Now what? That’s where King James comes in. With Jerry Stackhouse currently serving as interim President, the union is mere weeks, or maybe even days, away from naming a replacement. Reports flew out early this week that the four time MVP was considering running for the head role. Brian Windhorst accurately points out that James attended bargaining sessions during the lockout and firmly expressed the need for major reform of the union at the players’ meeting at this year’s All-Star game. Now, with sources close to LeBron whispering that he’s mulling a run, the NBA rumor mill is buzzing.

Having LeBron as President of the NBPA would be phenomenal for the players. Aside from being the best person alive at basketball (and it’s really not close, at all), James is quietly very intelligent and articulate. People enjoy hating on him, but LeBron has become excellent at fielding questions and giving smart, reasoned answers. Furthermore, an enormous part of his development into unstoppable-object-of-Tim-Duncan’s-nightmares has been James’ embracing of statistics, video, game-planning and more. In fact, LeBron even gets the same pre-game stat package novel as übernerd Shane Battier.

Clearly, James cares about his craft and is committed to improving in any way possible. This attitude would be a huge skill in his role as President. Furthermore, as the face of the game, James would demand the attention and respect of the owners who know that he’s the reason they make a lot of their money. If LeBron’s not afraid to step down with the NBA Finals on the line, why would he be scared of a bunch of old rich white dudes? I’m hoping LeBron sees this opportunity for what it is and seizes it. I’m guessing he does because he hasn’t exactly denied any of the reports we’re hearing. It’s been a long time since an NBA star in his prime was the driving force of its union, and James is exactly the punch in the arm the NBPA needs to enter a new age.



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