Former NBPA Executive Director Charles Grantham’s Analysis of the New NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement

From 1988-95, Charles Grantham served as the first executive director of the NBPA.  Grantham rose to the ranks of executive director after beginning work with the NBPA upon completing his MBA at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.  Prior to holding the position of executive director, Grantham served as the NBPA’s vice president of marketing and administration and executive vice president.  The vast roles that Grantham held at the NBPA provided him with extensive insight into the inner-workings of one of the nation’s most recognized labor unions.  As the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder face off in the 2012 NBA Finals after a shortened season caused by a labor dispute, Ruling Sports asked Grantham to provide his assessment of the labor deal that the NBA and NBPA struck in December 2011.

When asked to assess the deal that the NBPA was able to obtain for players in the new collective bargaining agreement, Grantham noted that when an employer locks employees out during the course of labor negotiations, the bargaining power shifts in such a way, that most of what the union can obtain for employees will not necessarily be characterized as “good.”  Grantham explained, “When you’re in the environment of a lockout, most if it will not be good.  It’s really about maintaining what you have.  At the end of the lockout, you look at how much you were able to keep and what you had to give away.” 

Given the negotiation predicament a union is placed in when management locks employees out, Grantham strongly suggests that unions work to fully negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement prior to the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement that is in place.  If completing a new agreement is impossible, Grantham  believes that the union should agree to extend the in-place collective bargaining agreement for one year, with the hope that a new collective bargaining agreement will be adopted during that time and a lockout or strike can be prevented.

Grantham’s basis for strongly suggesting that the NBPA work to enter into a new collective bargaining agreement or extend the term of an in-place collective bargaining agreement to prevent a lockout is based largely upon the career span of NBA players.  Reports indicate that the average career length of an NBA player is 4.8 years.  Given this, NBA players have a short time frame upon which they can capitalize upon their talents and secure enough financial resources to keep them financially afloat for a lifetime.  Missing games due to strikes or lockouts caused in part by the NBPA’s inability to negotiate a new labor agreement with the NBA, can substantially affect an NBA player’s earnings potential.  Thus, when the NBPA fails to reach an agreement with the NBA before a collective bargaining agreement expires, Grantham says that the union must ask itself, “For what reason may players lose some portion of their salary?”

In the case of the new collective bargaining agreement that the NBPA entered into with the NBA, Grantham does not believe that reason enough existed for the players to lose a portion of their salary as a result of the lockout which shortened the 2011-12 NBA season.  “What did you get in return for the lockout?  I don’t see much that was gained by the NBPA in the lockout.  In the long-term, they got a ten-year deal with an out after six years.  They lost 20 percent of their salary for what?  They came into an abbreviated season, and because the number of games was reduced, there’s the question of whether injuries could have been prevented through training camps and the number of games.  I just can’t put my arms around what the lockout gained for the players.  I know what it gained for management.” Grantham said.

Given Grantham’s belief that the NBPA should strive to adjust its position in labor negotiations in a way to prevent players from missing games, how then does the executive director of the NBPA prepare players for labor negotiations?  According to Grantham, “The biggest component is getting the players mentally prepared for what these negotiations are about.  These are business negotiations; too often, we get bogged down in the legality of the negotiations.  We’re looking at an ever-growing economic pie.  What percentage of that pie do we perceive as being equitable and the players entitled to as the league’s performers?  You really should be preparing them for negotiations five to six years out from when the negotiations begin.  Timing is everything.  There are some things that you have to build in to get the players to understand the value of the union’s representation.  If you tell them that there is a collective bargaining agreement process every few years, and that everything that their life revolves around is contained in that collective bargaining agreement, then you can get them involved.  It takes the players’ support to make the union effective.  ”

One way to get players involved in the collective bargaining agreement negotiation process is to educate them upon the processes’ importance in their ability to collect lucrative salaries.  According to Grantham, “What a player has to understand, is that there were hundreds of players before him that fought through this process and enabled him to negotiate a fair share of the NBA’s revenue, so that he could enjoy a six-year, $50 million contract.”

While the most recent NBA lockout largely centered upon the NBA and NBPA’s negotiations over the percentage of revenue players would receive, Grantham believes that in going forward, the NBPA must begin finding leverage for itself by negotiating what he calls “quality of life issues.”  Grantham detailed this notion by explaining, “What’s harming most of our athletes today?  Dementia, mental incapacitation, the inability to maintain financial footing, making transitions after retirement and suicide.  For the first time, you can see that the real issues facing athletes are quality of life issues.  The real issues facing athletes today aren’t necessarily their salaries.  These are all things that unions can take a leadership position in, and a lot of it starts with collective bargaining agreement negotiation.  As salaries start to rise, and revenues continue to, quality of life issues are much easier for the union to obtain during negotiations.”

Finally, if the NBPA is unable to prevent the NBA from locking out players in the future due to stalled labor negotiations, Grantham believes that the union must find a way to circumvent a lockout other than decertification of the union.  Grantham noted, “There was a time that decertification worked, and that was many years ago.  It was before the legal system caught up with the system whereby a union would decertify itself to put more antitrust scrutiny on management.  Back then, the application of decertification was so new, that the machinery wasn’t tuned and the court couldn’t figure out that this was a maneuver.  More recently though, the courts have adjusted.  Ultimately, we all knew when the agreement expired that we would be facing a lockout.  The problem though, is what happens to the players in the meantime?  The NBPA could say, ‘We’ve got this lawsuit going which will allow the guys to keep working.’  That would be great, but that is not the way that the system works.  As a strategic plan, I no longer see the value of decertifying.  If anything, it was demonstrated in the recent NFL and NBA labor negotiations that the unions need to re-think that strategy going forward.”

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