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Original Issue

The NBA's Union Blues

The inquiry into executive director Billy Hunter's dealings makes clear that the NBAPA needs new leadership to maintain its effectiveness

One suspects that Billy Hunter, executive director—for the moment, anyway—of the NBA Players' Association, really likes the Super Bowl. And Catfishing hoaxes. And even Lance Armstrong. Because as the Republic of Sports fixed its collective gaze on recent scandals and spectacles, another story was obscured, one that, while less sexy, could have truly far-reaching effects.

Early in 2012, not long after the NBA players and owners completed negotiation of a new collective bargaining agreement, Derek Fisher, the NBAPA president, called for an independent review of the union's business practices. Last month the prominent New York City law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison presented the findings in a 469-page report. It concluded that Hunter:

• "[I]nvolved family and friends in union business as employees or vendors without full disclosure."

• "Created an atmosphere that discouraged challenges to his authority," including preventing officers from speaking freely about conflicts of interest to the executive committee.

• "[N]ever told the union's executive committee or player representatives that his current employment contract ... was not properly approved under the Union by-laws."

The report also confirmed a 2012 Yahoo! story that Hunter tried to invest millions in union funds in a failing bank without disclosing that his son, Todd, was one of the bank's directors. (The NBAPA walked away from the investment, but not before spending $80,000 on due diligence.)

The report concluded: "The facts do show that, at times, Mr. Hunter's actions were inconsistent with his fiduciary obligations to put the interest of the union above his personal interests.... Further, Mr. Hunter did not properly manage conflicts of interest." Hunter immediately fired his daughter and daughter-in-law from the NBAPA and issued a statement saying that, while "there were always things that could have been done better.... I am pleased that this report confirmed [that] I did nothing illegal." Still, he was placed on leave and is the subject of a joint federal investigation by the U.S. Attorney's office and the Labor Department.

While this is not the first time that the NBAPA has been troubled by questions of ethics, when it comes to such issues, hoops has nothing on hockey. For the better part of two decades, the NHL Players Association warranted its own penalty box. In 2007 union head Ted Saskin was fired for cause after allegedly spying on players and monitoring their e-mail accounts. His predecessor, Bob Goodenow, was blamed for poor leadership during the lost 2004--05 season and resigned. Goodenow had replaced Alan Eagleson, who pleaded guilty to fraud and embezzlement charges pertaining to the players' pension fund, was sentenced to 18 months in prison and resigned from the Hockey Hall of Fame.

The NHL has since turned to Donald Fehr. Though a polarizing figure during his 26 years as head of the Major League Baseball Players Association, Fehr has a reputation for unimpeachable personal integrity; he also helped make the MLBPA one of the country's most powerful unions and set the table for an era of welcome labor stability in baseball.

While the allegations against Hunter don't rise to the level seen in the NHL, they remain troubling. Whether Hunter, a former prosecutor, was indifferent to or ignorant of the most basic professional standards, the report, at a minimum, calls his judgment into question. "Everybody's pointing the finger at Billy, and rightfully so," Jerry Stackhouse told The Detroit News last week. "He's made some wrong moves, but at the same time, we've sat and allowed those moves to be made."

He's right. And still, one wonders if the players realize the potential damage of Hunter's ethical shortcomings. In a perfect world, labor relations are about forming a partnership. More often they are about winning a war game. One side tries to outflank the other. There are battles of attrition, attempts to divide and conquer, spasms of mental warfare. (During the recent hockey negotiations Fehr supposedly took 20 minutes to pour himself a glass of water—his way of gauging the other side's patience.)

Sports unions are already deeply disadvantaged. "Labor" consists of hundreds of young athletes with short career windows and often little financial sophistication. "Management," meanwhile, consists of a few dozen astronomically wealthy men, whose goals are generally aligned, who don't worry about missing mortgage payments during a strike or a lockout. When management then suspects that the opposing leadership is less than credible? When owners suspect that the union lacks unity? It's not even a fair fight.

This all has real consequences. Before the NHL owners negotiated with Fehr, they waited to see if history would repeat itself and the NHLPA would devolve into infighting. (Only when it didn't and Fehr could demonstrate solidarity did the concessions come.) Be assured that next time the NBA owners negotiate with NBAPA, they'll recall the current state of the union—"a mess," as Kobe Bryant termed it last week—and act accordingly. The NBA is a $4.5 billion annual business. If this history of mistrust and distrust costs the players 1% of their leverage, that's a $450 million swing over the course of a 10-year CBA. Says Robert McCormack, labor law professor at Michigan State College of Law, "Apparent corruption is bad for the players, bad for the union and bad for negotiations."

For Bryant, Stackhouse and the other players rightfully calling for regime change, the first real opportunity will come during this weekend's All-Star events, when the membership will discuss Hunter's status and likely successors. Fehr's name, among others, has already been raised. Certainly, the players would do well to find a labor leader who won't hurt the cause with his own ethical shortcomings and shortcuts, someone who can make compromise while remaining uncompromised.


Irish sports-betting site Paddy Power's list of candidates to succeed Pope Benedict XVI includes renowned atheist Richard Dawkins (left), at odds of 666 to 1.