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Volume 21 No. 2
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In Hunter vs. Fisher, agents stay in background

As National Basketball Players Association Executive Director Billy Hunter and President Derek Fisher were engaged in a battle for control of the union last week, NBA agents and sports labor experts questioned whether either one, or the union itself, would survive the increasingly nasty, public fight.

The NBPA executive committee voted 8-0 to ask for Fisher’s resignation on April 20, but Fisher vowed not to resign, and last week saw a number of published reports questioning the union’s finances and the fact that Hunter’s three children and daughter-in-law either were on the NBPA payroll or worked for firms that were paid by the union.

Some agents and basketball sources said more players were on Hunter’s side than Fisher’s; others said more favored Fisher. Still others, including several powerful NBA agents who represent large blocks of players, said they don’t trust either of the key figures and wondered how the union as it now stands serves the players’ interests.

“Maybe that is the solution,” said one agent, “that we just decide to be a trade organization. We could just be a trade association and monitor benefits and things of that nature.”

This agent, one of the “power” agents pushing for decertification of the NBPA during last year’s lockout, said that same group of agents has not met in the wake of the recent union friction but that they would likely get together this summer to discuss what is best for the players and the union.

These agents previously were unhappy with Hunter’s strategy not to decertify the union during the lockout and instead pursue an unfair labor practices claim with the National Labor Relations Board. Hunter did ultimately decertify the union, but only after the agents had gathered signatures to hold a players vote to decertify the union.

Many of these agents were unhappy with Fisher during the lockout, too. Many expressed concern to SportsBusiness Journal last fall when reported that Fisher had discussed collective bargaining with NBA Commissioner David Stern, causing Hunter and another union executive committee member to confront Fisher.

Attempts to reach Fisher last week were unsuccessful. Hunter declined to comment.

On April 20, the NBPA said in a statement that executive committee members asked Fisher to resign because he had acted against the union’s and players’ interests, including in collective bargaining. Fisher responded with his own release, saying the allegations against him were defamatory and asking for NBA players to ask for a review of the union’s business practices and finances.

Said one powerful NBA agent about the allegations against both Hunter and Fisher: “I want all of it investigated; all of it.”

All agents interviewed for this story asked for anonymity, saying they did not want to discuss union business publicly.

Many basketball and sports labor experts expected a quick resolution after the NBPA issued its press release asking Fisher to resign and Fisher responded hours later with his own release to the media. But one source close to the situation said, “This could go on for months.”

NBPA executive committee member Etan Thomas, in an open letter to Hunter and Fisher published in The Huffington Post, asked both to step back. “Please don’t start mud slinging at each other in an ugly public display to tear down each others legacy and reputation,” Thomas wrote.

A number of sports labor experts said last week that although they have seen internal union battles hit the news in the past, they haven’t seen one quite like this, where the battle has unfolded so publicly while it is ongoing.

“Any kind of public display of divisiveness is harmful to the union because the union has strength through solidarity and this is the antithesis of that,” said Bill Gould, a Stanford Law School professor and former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board. “In terms of sports unions, this is very unusual, outside of hockey.”

Between 2005 and 2009, NHL players fired three executive directors of the NHL Players’ Association: Bob Goodenow, Ted Saskin and Paul Kelly, the moves coming for various reasons in fights that split apart the membership of the union.

Ian Pulver was hired as a union lawyer by Goodenow and worked for the NHLPA for 15 years but resigned in 2006.

“Although not the same fact pattern, it certainly brings back memories of the dark cloud that hung over the NHLPA for years,” said Pulver, now president of Pulver Sports, an NHL representation firm.

Pulver said it is normal for union members to disagree among themselves — as long as any disagreements remain behind closed doors.

“It is critical that the most influential union members get to the bottom of this immediately before it becomes a long, drawn-out battle in which neither interested party survives and all the players end up losing in the end,” he said.