Sources: Agents want union to decertify

Updated: September 14, 2011, 10:40 AM ET
By Chris Broussard and Henry Abbott | ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com

Five of the most powerful agents in the NBA spoke via conference call Monday about how they can help the players union in its stalemate with the league's owners. Their answer: blow the union up.

Arn Tellem, Bill Duffy, Mark Bartelstein, Jeff Schwartz and Dan Fegan -- who collectively represent nearly one-third of the league's players -- spoke Monday about the process of decertifying the union, according to sources with knowledge of the situation.

The agents' view is that the owners currently have most, if not all, of the leverage in these talks and that something needs to be done to turn the tide. They believe decertification will do the trick, creating uncertainty and wresting control away from the owners.

"The union has been negotiating with the league for a year and a half and the owners haven't changed their stance, so the conversation the agents had was about how to work with the union to enhance its strategy," a person close to the situation said on condition of anonymity. "The feeling is that decertification is the weapon that has to be pulled out of the arsenal, that it's the most effective way to change the dynamics of the negotiations."

The agents have spoken with Billy Hunter, the executive director of the players association, about the need for decertification, but he has thus far resisted their plan. He said Tuesday that the players are not yet considering decertifying.

"We've never really had any discussion about decertification," Hunter said after meeting with the owners. "As you're aware, we've obviously been experiencing some pressure in the media from some of the agents about decertification. That's not a message that has crossed our lips."

Hunter believes he has his own weapon to change the tenor of the talks in the lawsuit the union filed with the National Labor Relations Board. The suit claims that the NBA is not negotiating in good faith. Hunter said he hopes there will be a ruling within the next few weeks.

If the union wins its suit, the NLRB could declare the lockout illegal and end it, though the number of cases in which the NLRB has done that in the past decade is miniscule. Nevertheless, Hunter is not likely to consider decertification until getting the results of the suit.

The agents could push for an involuntary decertification by getting 30 percent of the league's players to sign a petition saying it supports decertification. And that's almost exactly the percentage of NBA players the five agents represent. While the agents have talked to their players about decertifying, sources say they have not started asking for signatures.

If they were to get 30 percent of the union's membership to sign a petition, the matter would go to a vote before all the league's players. A simple majority would be enough to decertify.

By law, labor unions cannot file antitrust lawsuits. Were the union to disband, however, the law would then view NBA players as individuals, instead of a union, and different laws would apply. They could file an antitrust motion against the owners and request an injunction that would force the owners to bring the players back to work.

The tactic effectively replaces the head of the union with an antitrust lawyer -- in American sports history, typically Jeffrey Kessler, who works for the players' union already -- and puts a lot of the key decisions in the hands of federal judges, which carries significant risks for both sides.

Not all agents believe decertification is the way, though. Happy Walters, Jeff Austin and Rob Pelinka, who represents Kobe Bryant and union president Derek Fisher, are among the agents who are not pushing for decertification.

Fisher emerged from Tuesday's labor meetings with a pessimistic view after the two sides made little to no progress during a full committee meeting.

"I think coming out of today, obviously because of the calendar, we can't come out of here feeling as though training camps and the season is going to start on time at this point," Fisher said.

That notion was shared by NBA commissioner David Stern.

"Well, we did not have a great day, I think it's fair to say that," Stern said. "On the other hand, we did say that it is our collective task to decide what we want on the one hand on each side, and two, what each side needs if we choose to work ourselves in such a way as to have the season start on time. That's still our goal."

Training camps have been expected to open Oct. 3 and the regular season's opening night is scheduled for Nov. 1.

Chris Broussard covers the NBA for ESPN The Magazine. Henry Abbott is a senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

Henry Abbott | email

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