Job Opening: Executive Director, National Basketball Players Association

By:  Todd Burach, Ruling Sports Contributor (Twitter:  @ToddBurach)

By most accounts, LeBron James took over the decisive National Basketball Players Association Meeting at All Star Weekend in Houston as he would the fourth quarter of a playoff game. You can imagine the familiar look in his eye as if to say ‘this game has gone on too long, and I’m about to end it.’ On Saturday, February 16, in the middle of a successful showcase weekend for the NBA, twenty-four player representatives voted without dissent to remove Billy Hunter from his position as Executive Director of the NBPA. According to the NY Times, LeBron, along with respected veteran Jerry Stackhouse, “literally drove the discussion and rallied the players to make the change.” [1] In business, as in basketball, just give the ball to LeBron and get out of his way.

The vote to dismiss Hunter came in response to the findings of an independent internal investigation of the NBPA by the law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP. While the report clearly states that the findings of the investigation do not show that Hunter engaged in criminal acts, the report found “the facts do show that, at times, Hunter’s actions were inconsistent with his fiduciary obligations to put the interest of the Union above his personal interest.” [2]  The referenced actions include not obtaining proper approval under the Union’s By-Laws for his current contract, receiving a $1.3 million payout for unused vacation time without adequate review, employing and contracting with several family members without full disclosure as well as the disinterested approval of Union leadership, and creating an atmosphere that discouraged challenges to his authority. The findings go on to list further actions including questionable investments, curious expenses, and failure to observe proper governance. Hunter and his representation have released a formal response to the Paul, Weis report, challenging many of the findings, and a legal battle is likely to ensue.

For the players, finding a replacement for Hunter is shaping up to be no easy task. It’s not that Hunter was so skilled and adept at his former post (in fact, the evidence would argue quite the contrary), the difficulty lies in the fact that a successful tenure as Executive Director of the NBPA requires an immensely diverse skill set. The individual must be well versed in labor law, seasoned at growing revenue for a global corporation, in tune with protecting the individual well-being of its members, while at the same time able to protect the collective interest of the whole. The role’s demanding requirements are analogous to LeBron’s role on a basketball court. His ability to score, rebound, assist, and play all-league defense led the Miami Heat to the 2012 NBA title. The players need to find an individual capable of wearing many hats, and given the demanding job requirements, the list of potential candidates has been sparse. David Falk, the long time agent for Michael Jordan, avowed, “If you offered me a billion dollars a year to do the job, I have no interest in doing it.”[3]  A source close to Donald Fehr, the current Executive Director of the NHLPA with a successful prior run as Executive Director of the MLBPA on his resume, quickly shot down his candidacy, saying he “has absolutely no plans to leave the NHLPA.”[4] Kevin Johnson, former NBA point guard and current Mayor of Sacramento, who is admirably fighting to keep the Kings in California, has been mentioned, however his second term as Mayor is not up until 2016[5].

Nearly a month removed from the decisive decision during All Star Weekend to replace Hunter, the search marches on for the Union’s next head. The players need someone to immediately reestablish credibility and a sense of order, then focus on growing the game, protecting their interests, and showing up at the next round of CBA negotiations better prepared. After the LeBron led meeting inHouston, many could argue that the proverbial ball of responsibility for ensuring that the right hire is made rests squarely in the King’s court. James has shown the ability to empower the players and has the prominence to get qualified potential candidates to listen. Heck, if LeBron called a certain someone at1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, I bet the man on the other end would at least pick up the phone, if only to appease the King.  With the direction of his league’sUnion in flux, it’s that point in the game where LeBron needs to call for the rock, give the look, and finish the play.

[1] “NBA Players Dismiss Union Leader” by Howard Beck. The New York Times, February, 16, 2013.

[2] “Report to the Special Committee of the National Basketball Players Association Concerning the Leadership and Business Practices of the NBPA: Executive Summary.” Page 1.

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