SBJ/May 5-11, 2014/Leagues and Governing Bodies

Issue galvanizes a troubled union

Could a new era of solidarity be ahead for NBA players in the wake of the Donald Sterling controversy?

Players and NBA agents expressed hope that the unity and strength displayed by the National Basketball Players Association could give the union, which has been plagued by its own controversies as well as player apathy, a fresh beginning.

Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson won praise from players and agents for his leadership. 
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES

“The Sterling incident has become a lightning rod in what I will call forced engagement by all of the NBA players,” said veteran agent Bill Duffy, president and founder of BDA Sports Management. “By them being galvanized, they realize they can have an impact on how business is handled and league policy. Although this is an extreme matter [and] a sensitive matter, it has promoted a forum in which players can engage ownership in future dealings.”

The NBPA has been plagued by a leadership void since the firing of Executive Director Billy Hunter, and the search to find a replacement has been filled with conflict and criticism.

But last week, both players and agents were praising the union and the role of Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson after players came together over racist remarks by Los Angeles Clippers owner Sterling.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s lifetime ban of Sterling and effort to force him to sell the club was applauded by players individually and the union as a whole. Johnson, who was asked by NBPA President Chris Paul to assist the union’s response to the issue, had lobbied Silver for strict action against the Clippers owner. Players, in fact, said they were planning to boycott playoff games had Silver not ruled aggressively.

Jeff Schwartz, founder and CEO of Excel Sports Management, viewed the players’ response as a game-changer.

“In dealing with the repugnant and indefensible comments that were made by Donald Sterling, the NBA players as a whole are now at a huge turning point, in the way the issue at hand is fostering player unity,” Schwartz said. “The players are seeing the strength of their collective voice and their ability to speak loudly and effectively on matters that affect them.”

NBPA vice president Roger Mason Jr. agreed, saying that as painful as the Sterling incident was for players, it could result in a positive for the union. “It was an opportunity for us to grow as a union and to get stronger and to band together,” he said.

Both Duffy and Schwartz praised Johnson, who helped lead players though talks with the league about what punishment Sterling should receive.

“The addition of Kevin Johnson’s leadership on this issue has helped solidify their response and call for action, which is setting the tone for future dealings with the owners,” Schwartz said.

Johnson first became involved in the NBPA in early April after Paul asked him for help with the NBPA executive director search. The day after Sterling’s remarks were aired publicly, Paul announced that the union had expanded Johnson’s duties to help determine the players’ response and next steps.

Duffy called Johnson “a star among stars” who has proactively reached out to players and agents. Duffy noted Johnson had credibility with both groups because of his history as a star NBA player and role in the community.

“Every agent looks at him and every player looks at him and says, ‘This guy is legit,’” Duffy said.

There has been speculation in the industry that Johnson would be a candidate for the NBPA job. But in a brief telephone interview with SportsBusiness Journal last week, Johnson said he was not interested in the post.


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