“What troubles our players is the speed and deliberateness of the punishment that they have seen in the past when it comes to a player. There isn’t the same speed or deliberate action when it comes to an owner, and that’s a problem.”

The above quote is by DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL Players Association, criticizing NFL commissioner Roger Goodell for a perceived “credibility gap” in how Goodell disciplines players and owners.

Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay was arrested in mid-March on suspicion of drunk driving, and has yet to face any action from the league.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver suffers from no such gap in credibility. In stark contrast to Goodell, Silver acted swiftly and decisively in response to crisis, namely the racist statements made by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling.

Silver announced a lifetime suspension and a $2.5 million fine, earning near-universal praise from LeBron James to President Barack Obama.

Although he was commended for taking such strong action, it is important to point out that Silver was under no obligation to deliver any penalty whatsoever, particularly one that satisfied the NBA’s labor pool.

Silver acted on his own volition. And there’s the problem.

Going It Alone

The admonishments from James and others that “there’s no room for Donald Sterling in our league” do not belie this reality: the players have no voice in such matters. Like the rest of us, they were mere spectators to Silver’s decision.

The only recourse available to the players in this scenario was the threat of a boycott.

Golden State Warriors center Andrew Bogut confirmed as much, stating that, had Silver not acted in a way players deemed satisfactory, the Warriors and Clippers, along with the four other teams scheduled to play on April 29, would have “walked off the court just as the opening seconds started ticking off the clock, outcome be damned.” Bogut notes that such an event “would have gone down as one of the most significant protests in sporting history.”

Given that players feel this strongly about matters that affect their livelihood, they should have a way to express these feelings without resorting to the threat of a walk-off. Instead of merely imploring the Commissioner to consider their views, the players should be formally empowered to work with Silver and the owners to effect the change they seek. Players should have a voice in the management of the NBA.

Works Councils in the NBA

A works council would have enabled players to decide what to do with Sterling. It operates by providing employees a role in the company by requiring management to inform and consult with them on all significant company decisions that impact their employment or working conditions.

Largely, in the United States, employees have virtually no role in the management of companies. Boards of directors oversee the activities of a company, and in corporations, members of the board are elected to represent ownership and have a fiduciary responsibility to exclusively advance their interests.

The basketball equivalent of a board of directors is the NBA Board of Governors. Composed of team owners and their representatives, the NBA Board of Governors determines everything from game rules and the Finals format to the relocation and sale of franchises.

Although works councils have yet to gain traction in the United States, the United Auto Workers (UAW) narrowly lost in its attempt to install a works council at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

The NBA could actually provide an ideal platform for the introduction of works councils. Players, owners, and their representatives all seem fond of referring to each other as “partners” in their corporate enterprise.

In the aftermath of the expulsion of Donald Sterling from the NBA, Silver told National Basketball Players Association President Chris Paul that “we have an opportunity to be partners in everything we do.” During the 2011 NBA Lockout, then-Commissioner David Stern spoke often about the “partnership” between the league, the players, and their union.

A works council would give teeth to the oft-discussed notion of partnership between players and owners. A true partnership—between the employers who own the teams and the employees whose play on the court constitutes both the labor and the product of the NBA—would involve giving players 50 percent of the seats on the NBA Board of Governors.

Why shouldn’t the players participate in the governance of their sport?

Issues such as expansion, relocation, and the placement of advertisements on team uniforms certainly deserve player input, given they are the ones performing on a nightly basis.

Rule changes, which include the review of a block-charge play, instant replay, hand-checking, and the distance of fans from the court, are all workplace issues. Consulting with those who incorporate rule change results into players’ livelihoods only enhance decisions about them.

This model of co-determination could reduce the labor conflict plaguing the National Hockey League and the National Football League, in addition to the NBA, in recent years. Applied to the Donald Sterling situation, if players had a 50 percent share of the Advisory/Finance Committee, which initiated the termination of Sterling’s ownership, players would have been more than spectators awaiting the decision of Commissioner Silver, but active participants formally empowered to chart the way forward.

Works Councils Mean Sharing Control

Of course, a works council in the NBA would require team owners—some of whom are willing to pay upwards of $2 billion to own the team—to grant considerable control to the employees that some regard as no more than the hired help.

Owners cherish having complete control. As economist Andrew Zimbalist put it, “one of the reasons why people like to own things is because they get control with it…and the ability to make decisions.”

However, at a time when franchise values are soaring and coaching salaries reach record highs, player seats on the NBA Board of Governors is an adequate way to compensate the players. After all, since the 2011 NBA Lockout, they are operating in a system that deprives them of the ability to share in the rising fortunes enjoyed by owners and coaches.

Just as the NFL lockout increased owner profit by lowering player costs, the NBA lockout granted ownership major wins in the form of a “massive reduction in player salaries, reductions in the maximum length of contracts, and harsher tax penalties” for teams that exceed the salary cap.

The end result of these measures is that while franchise values reach record heights, making billionaires out of team owners including Michael Jordan, it will be statutorily impossible in the coming years for player wages to mirror the soaring fortunes of owners and management.

This system exists, according to one commentator, “because the owners keep winning in collective bargaining.” Although it is increasingly recognized that the $2 billion valuation for the Los Angeles Clippers “wouldn’t be possible” without landing Blake Griffin in the 2009 NBA Draft, the existing CBA allows “no way for him to be justly compensated” for his impact on the value of the team.

For the next round of collective bargaining, I suggest NBA players push for representation on the Board of Governors. Consider the likes of a Shane Battier, Ray Allen, Steve Nash or Grant Hill, as elected representatives, serving on the board and representing the players during management deliberations.

This co-determinative system of management would bring to fruition the notion of “partnership” between owners and players, and would grant the NBA the distinction of being the first enterprise to introduce works councils in the United States.


Photo credits: Google Image Search. (1) Shane Battier, (2) Donald Sterling, (3) Blake Griffin