By David Wilson
If the on-court employees of the NBA thought that the Association was “the players’ league,” the recent decisions by NBA Commish, David Stern, opened their eyes to an unpleasant truth; the Association isn’t their league in the least. Now, in reaction to having ol’ leather replaced with a Wal-Mart indoor-outdoor rock and in reaction to refs handing out techs like they were free Agent Zero jerseys at a Wizards’ game, the players decided it was time to fight back. The NBA Players’ Association filed two unfair labor practice charges Friday against the NBA over issues with the rock and the league’s crackdown on overt demonstrations of disgust over referee calls.
According to an Associated Press report, “the charges were filed with the National Labor Relations Board (N.L.R.B.).”
A New York Times article by Liz Robbins tells it this way: “ The new synthetic ball and the new rules cracking down on in-game conduct have prompted complaints from players since the N.B.A. season began. But what irritated the National Basketball Players Association most was that its membership was not informed beforehand of the changes. Yesterday, the players union filed two unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board and asked the N.L.R.B. to investigate what it said were the N.B.A.’s unilateral actions. ‘Our obligation to represent our membership dictates the filing of these actions,’ the union’s executive director, Billy Hunter, said in a statement. There is virtual unanimity amongst the players about their concerns and intense dislike for the new synthetic ball and the ‘zero tolerance’ policy. After extensive consultation with our membership and player leadership, we determined that this was the appropriate course of action.”
The term “zero tolerance policy’ is used most often used to describe the refs’ tech frenzy: 183 technical fouls have been called as of December 1, up over 50% from the 123 that were called at this time last season. According to the Association’s master planners, the crackdown isn’t a new rule, but a point of emphasis. Under Stern’s orders, players are fined $1,000 for each of their first five technicals. The fine increases by $500 for each five techs received after that. Next, the fine amount reaches $2,500 for each “T” starting with the 16th. Finally, when a player receives his magical 17th technical, he incurs a one-game suspension for every other technical thereafter.
Jerry Stackhouse, Dallas Maverick’s player rep said of Stern’s point of emphasis: “To give a technical foul, it’s giving money back. If it’s a technical foul, all right, penalize the team. But don’t take guys’ money for natural reactions toward heat of the moment things. We’re not robots. They would say they don’t want us to become robots, but that’s what it’s becoming. Everything doesn’t have to be we’re going to show you by taking your money away. A thousand dollars is a thousand dollars, no matter whether you are making $9 million or $30,000. It takes away from your natural reaction, the things that make basketball what it is. Do you think Bill Bradley never hit the support after he was called for a foul? That’s the model citizen of all former NBA players. It’s just a natural thing to do.”
Wizards vet, Antonio Daniels and Cleveland’s LeBron James put it more succinctly:
Daniels said that “you never want to feel that the NBA’s a dictatorship” while James vented that “technicals are being thrown like Peyton Manning passes.”
What is, from the Association master planner’s side, the reasoning for this crackdown? Here’s another snippet from Robbins’ article that lends some insight into Stern’s thinking: “Stu Jackson, a league vice president, had said that the new policy was designed to improve the game’s image.”
Billy Hunter, players’ union head honcho responded to Jackson’s statement saying he believed the new policy distracted players from doing their job by trying to restrict their emotions.
Sounds like beef to me. And we haven’t even got to the problems with the ball yet.
Before we move on, though, there was one sign that there were impending problems with the NBA league offices and the players’ association. The crew over at DESPN (the Disney Entertainment Sports Programming Network) ran a nightly technical foul watch on Sportscenter which began just fater the new season commenced. Suddenly, since Monday of this past week, there was no more tech watch. In fact, there were no mentions of tehnical fouls on Sportscenter.
The off-court beef with the new ball is that they weren’t involved in the decision-making process which led to a “changing of the ball.” The league simply unveiled it in June and sent one to its teams and all players before the start of training camp. It was also used during summer league play. There was no warning, no discussion, just, here it is – deal with it.
Wait, that’s not quite true. The ball was tested by some NBA players. Well, ex-NBA players, to be completely forthcoming. The testers? They were three – and they indirectly worked for the NBA as broadcasters: Mark Jackson, Reggie Miller and Steve Kerr. The only time N.B.A. players used the ball before it was officially rolled out for summer league players was at the 2006 All-Star Game in Houston, and then no one told the participants in the game that the ball was going league-wide this year.
Reaction to the new ball was swift – and negative. The din of hateful remarks about the ball’s performance reached such a level that Dallas Mavericks owner went so far as to have the ball independently tested at the University of Texas-Arlington physics department.
What exactly did players say? Here are some reactions from around the Association about the new concoction called the Sam’s Club Quasi-Euro ball; I mean the Spalding Microfiber basketball.
Shareef Abdur-Rahim: “I was surprised when they announced that they were changing the ball. That shouldn’t happen without some input from the players. I’ve never cared for the new ball, and I’m a big guy. When ballhandlers like Steve Nash and Jason Kidd are complaining about it, that says a lot.”
LeBron James: “It’s not a good basketball. It kind of feels like a basketball you buy for your kids at Christmas or something. Sometimes it feels good, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes you can grip it, and sometimes during the game it sticks to your hand. It won’t bounce; it will just roll on you. I don’t know why we can’t get used to this ball. But it’s just not good. You can shorten our shorts, tell us how to wear wristbands, things like that. Change the dress code. But the one thing we care about is the basketball. When you start changing the thing we play with every single day, it doesn’t make sense to me — at all.”
Shaquille O’Neal: “I think the new ball is terrible. It’s the worst decision some expert, whoever did it, made. … The NBA’s been around how long? A hundred years? Fifty years? So to change it now, whoever that person is needs his college degree revoked. It’s a terrible decision. Feels like one of those cheap balls that you buy at the toy store, indoor-outdoor balls. I look for shooting percentages to be way down and turnovers to be way up, because when the ball gets wet you can’t really control it. Whoever did that needs to be fired. It was terrible, a terrible decision. Awful. I might get fined for saying that, but so what?”
Tracy McGrady: “Maybe it’s about money… Bring the old ball back. I don’t care about old rules, the defense, I don’t care about any of that. Just bring the old ball back.”
Steve Nash: “They’ve changed our weapon. I’m having a hard time holding it and making some passes. The more I use it, the more I hate it.”
Yao Ming: “It’s like some mornings when you wake up, your hand was in the wrong position and you’re numb on the fingers. Do you ever have that feeling? The ball has that feeling. It feels flat.”
The questions remain, what was behind the ball change and why weren’t all current players asked for their input as to its performance?
If you believe ESPN network reports, the change happened because of Stern’s sensitivity toward the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals‘ (PETA) concerns about the use of cows in the making of leather for the old Spalding ball. So, in Stern’s mind, there was no recourse but to create a new, synthetic ball.
But, buried in a Houston Chronicle article by Fran Blinebury on the new ball, I found this important piece of information: “The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) have endorsed the switch, saying it will save cows from death in the making of balls. Yet it’s been noted the hides used to make leather basketballs come from animals that have been slaughtered for food.”
Whoops! So much for Stern playing the “sensitivity card.”
Why the change then? To be new? Different?
No. The real reason for the change is exactly what Tracy McGrady said it was – money.
Behind all the havoc the new ball has caused, the real reason for the change is explained within the Web pages of Spalding’s own website: “The National Basketball Association has entered into a new eight-year global partnership with Russell Corporation, marketers of Spalding basketballs and Huffy Sports backboards, marking the largest equipment deal in sports. The agreement, which was announced today by Russell Chairman and CEO Jack Ward and NBA Commissioner David Stern at the NBA Store in New York City, is valued at approximately $125 million and demonstrates the synergy of Russell’s acquisition of and Huffy Sports. Basketball is the fastest growing sport in the world and this agreement with the NBA will help ensure that an increasing number of fans will be playing with a Spalding basketball and a Huffy Sports backboard.”
Spalding basketball equipment is available in approximately 18,000 retail locations in 74 countries around the world. During the course of the relationship, Spalding has sold more than 70 million NBA basketballs and Huffy Sports has sold more than 15 million NBA backboards representing combined retail sales of more than $3 billion worldwide.
The deal was inked in New York on December 15, 2004.
The kicker of the deal is that it was made independently of the players’ association and so all the monies go directly into the NBA’s coffers. Ahhh, $125 mil, what a nice chunk of personal change. So, Stern’s sensitivity went about this far: screw the players, there’s money to be made.
Remember this little deal made recently by the player’s association that Lang Whitaker of Slam wrote about? Lang wrote, “Interesting chess move by Billy Hunter and the Player’s Association. They’ve signed a deal with a supplement company to provide pills and powders and all that stuff to each team. The Players did not run this by the League office, probably because the NBA did not go to them for input when they signed their deal for the new balls or the new tougher technical foul rules. The League says, ‘It has been the NBA policy that our players should not take supplements,’ which basically means the Player’s Association did this as a big screw you to the NBA.”
That deal was inked November 30, 2006.
The supplement deal, though definitely a screw you to Stern, wasn’t exactly in reaction to “the deal for the new balls or the new tougher technical foul rules,“ as Whitaker put it in his Slam note. Hunter laid in the cut after the Russell deal two years ago and waited patiently for his opportunity to strike beck at the league offices, at Stern. Stern, as a result of the last collective bargaining agreement (CBA), feels he has the players’ association by the balls and can implement change on the sport in any manner of his choosing. He makes a deal that line only his and his cronies’ pockets. He goes about distancing the NBA from hip-hop culture and toward NASCAR culture by inflicting a series of noose-tightening rules, specifically rules about dress on and off the court and rules concerning on-court “behavior.” Then he rolls out the newly-minted Spalding Sam’s Club Quasi-Euro Microfiber balls. Hunter seeing this in effect, gets proactive and inks his own deal for the players that he’s been working on for awhile.
These actions set up some very acrimonious meetings when Stern and Hunter meet to set the next collective bargaining agreement in five years. However, these meetings may happen sooner if the players’ association and the league get deeply mired in court proceedings. How can they meet before 2011, the next scheduled CBA meetings? They can meet and amend the present agreement – if the players, in the next couple of years, go on strike. Now that would put a major burr up Stern’s “point of emphasis.”
You can read more of David’s articles by checking out Sports on my Mind.