Commentary

London Olympics facing lockout impact

Prohibitive insurance costs could hinder NBA player participation in London Games

Originally Published: July 14, 2011
By Chris Sheridan | ESPN.com

Will the NBA lockout ruin the 2012 Summer Olympics? It is a fair question, one that will be at least partially answered by the end of the summer.

Several foreign basketball federations are grappling with high insurance costs in the weeks leading up to regional Olympic qualification tournaments, one piece of the "collateral damage" that NBA commissioner David Stern spoke of when he announced on June 30 that the league was imposing a lockout.

Those federations are trying to find ways to shoulder the enormous financial burden of insuring their star players' NBA contracts, an expense that could force several of the top international players to sit out FIBA tournaments this summer.

The Australian federation already has announced that it will not have Andrew Bogut on the roster for the FIBA-Oceania tournament, and the Spanish federation has said it will cost as much as $5,670,000 to insure the contracts of players including Pau and Marc Gasol, Rudy Fernandez, Jose Calderon and Ricky Rubio.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Bogut
Mike Hewitt/Getty ImagesBucks center Andrew Bogut is putting his Australian games on hold.
"I think the majority of players, when it is all explained to them, just aren't going to play," said one international basketball executive with insight into the internal debate going on inside FIBA, the sport's international governing body, regarding the insurance issue.

In a normal offseason, an agreement between FIBA and the NBA provides an infrastructure that holds down the cost of insuring players' contracts in case they are injured in an international competition.

But that agreement has been suspended as part of the NBA lockout, leaving federations scrambling to find ways to provide full insurance rather than supplemental coverage. One agent whose client is due to earn $10 million next season on his NBA contract said the player had been quoted a price of $400,000 to insure his contract for one of the five FIBA qualifiers taking place later this summer.

"There is no good reason why FIBA was left to fend on its own," said agent David Bauman, who represents Bogut. "In this case the NBA is punishing all the countries they are using to build their worldwide influence and their global brand by making it so that these players are not able to partake in Olympic qualifying tournaments."

The United States, by virtue of winning the world championship in Istanbul last summer, is the only team to have qualified thus far for the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

Great Britain, the host nation, also has been awarded a spot in the 12-team field.

The Americans plan to field one of the strongest international teams ever with several players from both the 2008 Olympic "Redeem Team" and the 2010 "B-deem Team," as long as the NBA lockout is resolved before the summer of 2012. But the absence of several NBA players from Olympic qualifiers could affect the caliber of competition that Team USA would face.

The problem is acute in Europe, where the Eurobasket 2011 tournament will be contested in Lithuania from Aug. 31 to Sept. 18.

"We have two channels available; one is to get the insurance and the other to get the finance needed for this to happen," Spanish federation president Jose Luis Saez told FIBA.com. "There are federations that, even if their interest and that of their players is to take part in their given tournaments, it is going to be very complicated. In certain cases, it would be important for certain institutions to help out financially."

The Eurobasket tournament, along with the pretournament qualification round that will determine the final two teams in the 24-team field, will produce two teams for the London Games.

Two more teams will come out of the FIBA Americas tournament in Mar del Plata, Argentina, from Aug. 30-Sept. 11, and one team apiece will come out of the FIBA Africa, FIBA Oceania and FIBA Asia tournaments.

The final three teams for the London Games will be determined in a pre-Olympic qualification tournament (loosely known as the "second-chance tournament") to be held at an as-yet-to-be-determined site July 2-8, 2011.

"It's possible that because of [the lockout] basketball won't be the biggest team sport at the Olympics," said former NBA player Bostjan Nachbar, who plays for Slovenia.

For now, many NBA players are reporting to their national team training camps in the hope that a resolution will come before the qualification tournaments begin. On Tuesday, Tony Parker, Joakim Noah, Boris Diaw, Ronny Turiaf, Nicolas Batum and Mickael Pietrus reported for the opening of the French team's training camp in Paris.

"I am confident the French federation will find a solution" to the insurance issue, Parker told FIBA.com.

[+] EnlargeTony Parker
Jacques Demarthon/Getty ImagesTony Parker hopes insurance issues can be ironed out so he can represent France again.
Danilo Gallinari of the Denver Nuggets has reported to the Italian national team, while Argentina is scheduled to open camp July 29 with a squad that would include NBA players Manu Ginobili, Luis Scola, Andres Nocioni and Carlos Delfino, along with the recently unretired Fabricio Oberto, all of whom were members of the 2004 team that won the gold medal at the Olympics in Athens.

"We have to find a solution for the players," Argentine federation president German Vaccaro told FIBA.com. "From an institutional standpoint, it would be irresponsible on our part to make the players play without an insurance policy, and on the other hand, for them, the players, they need to be insured for their own security in order to do their job.

"What we have heard is that a player who has a three-year contract and is not one of the highest earners but an average one, if we had to insure him for the three years, we would be talking about $300,000. So we are talking about an amount that would be unreachable for any federation."

FIBA secretary general Patrick Baumann declined comment through a spokesman but said he would address the issue later this month (along with the issue of whether FIBA will issue a letter of clearance to Deron Williams, who has reached agreement with Turkish club Besiktas).

Sources told ESPN.com that FIBA is exploring several possible solutions, including an option being spearheaded by FIBA Europe to find one insurance company to insure all European NBA players regardless of their national affiliations (similar to a program operated by the international hockey federation). Other options for national federations include purchasing policies that would insure against only a one-year injury or choosing just a single NBA player to insure and leaving the rest of the NBA players off the qualification squads.

Some players could choose to play without insurance, but they would be putting their future earnings in jeopardy. (An interesting case is point is Dirk Nowitzki, who wants to play for Germany this summer. If Nowitzki suffered a serious injury in Eurobasket, would Mark Cuban actually refuse to pay him?)

"The NBA is leaving these players in the lurch," said Bogut's agent, Bauman, who noted that the deal-breaker for insuring Bogut's remaining $39 million in NBA salary was a stipulation that pre-existing injuries to Bogut's elbow, wrist and back would be excluded from the policy. "There is no reason why a July 1 lockout should have prevented the NBA, FIBA and the national federations from coming up with an adequate plan."

Nachbar said the lockout -- and the impact it will have on European national teams -- has the potential to turn overseas fans against the NBA.

"It is extremely bad for growth of global basketball," Nachbar told ESPN.com in an email. "In recent years basketball has been on the upside, and the lockout definitely kills the momentum. Europe has its alternative in Euroleague, and many fans might turn to that league to satisfy the hunger for basketball, but I am not sure how other parts of the world will cope with not seeing their stars on the court. Will they choose to follow a different sport because of that? Probably."