Much to His Chagrin
By Michael Shagrin, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Friday, February 22, 2013
Much to my chagrin, yesterday’s NBA trade deadline was a bore. The lure of finding one final puzzle piece before the playoffs is usually too strong to resist. Even more, with the proliferation of NBA insiders’ use of Twitter, the trade deadline’s accompanying drama is often a strangely intimate insight into the sausage-making process. However, all of the big names thrown around over the past two weeks have evaded exchange.
How did we get here? Just two years ago, two different teams in the New York metropolitan area acquired elite NBA talent, Carmelo Anthony and Deron Williams, in a span of 72 hours. Those negotiations, like any set of mediated negotiations in the world of high-speed Internet and social networks, included leverage that is fluid and subjective. If one side feels that discussions are not trending in their desired direction, they can stop, leak something to the media and hope that the negotiating dynamics will change before the two sides sit down together again.
We have seen this over and over in Washington, D.C., as Congress and the president leap from one manufactured crisis to the next. It started with the debt ceiling debacle in summer 2011, and continued with the election season debate over what to do about massive tax cuts that were set to expire on Jan. 1. With both Democrats and Republicans believing that their leverage increased as they approached the deadline, they dug in their heels and ultimately brokered a deal to retroactively void the tax increases.
The point here is that, even with trillions of dollars at stake and the potential to affect hundreds of millions of people, conference table adversaries will still prolong negotiations in order to gain even the slightest bit of leverage. But if you think politicians are feisty, you’ve never met an NBA agent.
Trade deadline deals usually pair up teams in diametrically opposed situations, like the aforementioned cases involving both Williams and Anthony. An up-and-coming team looking to offload high-priced veterans gets a call from a title contender who is willing to make long-term sacrifices for short-term firepower. But the Collective Bargaining Agreement enacted after last year’s lockout-extended off season changed the conventional decision calculus by adding financial penalties and increased restrictions on a team’s front office for any spending beyond the luxury tax. This measure was meant to save owners from themselves or, more specifically, the smooth-talking general managers they hired.
On the other hand, negotiators are unwilling to use such tactics lest they make their own situation worse. Billy Hunter, the recently fired National Basketball Players Association executive director and lead negotiator representing players during the 2011 lockout, embodies this position perfectly.
A rift between Hunter and union president Derek Fisher opened over lockout negotiations and turned into a chasm between Hunter and the entire player’s union.
Top NBA agent Arn Tellem circulated a letter to his best clients in January, calling Hunter out for bad practices and asking them to take action against Hunter at the upcoming players’ meeting during All-Star weekend.
Hunter was accused of rampant nepotism, hiring his family members for union positions and handing out contracts to family members’ firms, as well as earmarking union funds for personal use.
An independent review of Hunter’s actions conducted by an outside law firm recommended Hunter be immediately removed from his duties. Hunter was unanimously ousted by union representatives after their meeting last weekend.
A significant portion of NBA players and agents were unhappy with Hunter’s leadership well before his amoral opportunism was exposed. The root of the dissatisfaction? The latest collective bargaining negotiations. Vocal players and their representatives felt that Hunter gave away too much, too quickly in negotiations, probably due to his entrenchment as executive director. Hunter had it so good in his current position that he lost any incentive to draw out negotiations for the benefit of his players, preferring instead to stick with the advantageous status quo.
If a primary negotiator fears a disadvantageous agreement would put his professional status at risk, there is every incentive to prolong coming to an agreement. Billy Hunter, however, was too comfortable in his position, making millions for himself and his family, and he didn’t feel the fire underneath him.