SBJ/May 28 - June 3, 2001/Labor Agents

Hunter suggests end to rookie scale a fair trade for rise in NBA age limit

Union chief Billy Hunter made it clear that he has no intention of agreeing to the NBA's request to raise its age limit from 18 — that is, unless the league is willing to concede something to the players.

"My attitude is, if they are so concerned about the age limit, let's talk about eliminating the rookie wage scale," Hunter said in a speech at the Sports Lawyers Association's annual conference in Philadelphia earlier this month.

Hunter said NBA officials have been talking to him about setting a higher age limit as they prepare for talks to extend the NBA's television contract. A bigger contract means bigger salaries for players.

"I have been advised that one way to help [the NBA in television negotiations] is an age limit," Hunter said. "I am not buying it."

Hunter, in a brief interview after his speech, said he has not formally presented his plan to eliminate the rookie wage scale to league officials.

But Joel Litvin, chief legal officer at the NBA, who was also a speaker at the conference, indicated that a deal swapping a higher age limit for relief from the rookie wage scale was not likely.

Litvin said the league is not inclined to do away with the rookie wage scale. As for giving the players something in exchange for a concession on an age-limit change, Litvin said, "We view this as something that would be good for the union and the league and not something we are inclined to pay for."

In a speech before the sports lawyers, Litvin said that a higher age limit, "as a pure business matter, is a no-brainer."

NBA draft prospects who spend at least three years in college "come to us as a ready-made star," Litvin said.

Noting that as many as six players in this draft are high school players, Litvin added, "Nobody has any idea who Tyson Chandler is or Kwami Brown is." (Both are high school seniors who are expected to be among the first players taken in the NBA draft next month.)

Meanwhile, Hunter also told the convention that he is becoming concerned about the size and the length of disciplinary fines and suspensions being doled out by the league.

"What we see is a constant ratcheting up [of penalties]," Hunter said. Infractions that brought a one-day suspension a couple of years ago are now bringing as many as five days. Fines that were $5,000 to $10,000 a few years ago are now $10,000 to $20,000, Hunter said.

 KASTEN SLAMS NBPA: Stan Kasten, president of the Atlanta Braves, Hawks and Thrashers, charged that the National Basketball Players Association did not punish agent Eric Fleisher harshly enough for salary cap violations.

The NBPA in April fined Fleisher $57,000 and suspended him for six months for his role in negotiating an illegal, secret contract for his client Joe Smith with the Minnesota Timberwolves. The NBA last October fined the team $3.5 million and took away five first-round draft picks.

Kasten, speaking during a session on ethics at the sports lawyers convention, called the league's discipline of the Timberwolves "severe, but not too severe."

But Kasten said the union's was not nearly severe enough. "It suggest that the union in charge did not take this violation very seriously, and that troubles me quite a bit," Kasten said.

Hunter, when told of Kasten's comments, said that the Atlanta executive "doesn't dictate what happens in our shop."

Dick Moss, an agent who was on the panel with Kasten, argued that the penalty was severe. "I think the agent in question will have trouble functioning as an agent in the future," he said.

  SEX-CHANGE POLICY: USA Track and Field is working to develop a policy to deal with transgender athletes, after an allegation that a runner in a masters women's track event had been a man before undergoing a sex-change operation.

Jill Pilgrim, general counsel of USA Track and Field, brought up the issue during a panel on women's sports at the sports lawyers conference. Pilgrim said the law regarding who is legally considered a woman is changing as sex-change operations become more common.

Libba Gallaway, general counsel for the LPGA, said that organization limits membership to "females at birth." She conceded, though, "That being said, it's just words on a piece of paper."

Pilgrim, in an interview after the session, said the organization has been studying the issue in response to a complaint from a participant who alleged another participant had undergone a sex-change operation. "We don't have a policy to deal with an individual who has had a sex change," she said.

Liz Mullen can be reached at lmullen@amcity.com.

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