THE START OF A CHAIN REACTION?

In an uncharacteristic act of compromise, NBA owners agreed to undo the bonds that tie players to one team. Will it work? Perhaps. Will other pro leagues pursue similar agreements? They had better
February 16, 1976

Let's say that five or six years ago something bugged you so much that you began knocking your head against a reinforced-concrete wall. Even if you are a very adamant sort, it is likely the realization that the wall is unyielding—not to mention those throbbing pains in your cranium—would catch up with you. Eventually you would feel compelled to cease all that banging.

A process not dissimilar to that has finally worn down the 18 steadfast men who run teams in the NBA. Last week they abruptly stopped butting their brains against the wall of legal adversity erected by their players in 1970. By so doing, they ended a confrontation that threatened to leave management, athletes and fans senseless. The players say they are happy the controversy has ended; the owners are not quite so sure, but they think they are, too. For the fans, who watched helplessly as the torture went on, management's decision offers not only the prospect that the owner-player squabbling of recent seasons is over, but also that the interleague war between the NBA and ABA may soon end, giving fans in Los Angeles a chance to see Julius Erving while spectators in Kentucky at last get to lay eyes on Dave Cowens.

With pro sports running amok in legal complexities, the truce in the NBA, which essentially gives the players just about all the freedom they ever wanted, is an example of the kind of positive action desperately needed in pro baseball, football and, to a lesser extent, hockey. In fact, the most important aspect of the NBA settlement is that it may signal a new spirit of cooperation between owners and athletes, who reluctantly seem to be coming around to the view that they are stuck with each other and might as well make the best of it.

The essentials of the NBA agreement are three. First, the option clause will be eliminated from non-rookie player contracts, beginning with those that expire next season. The option binds a player to a team for one year after the term of his contract has run out. Second, a procedure called "the right of first refusal" goes into effect in 1980. Example: Philadelphia wants Bob McAdoo, whose contract with Buffalo has expired, and he is interested in joining the 76ers. Philadelphia makes an offer to McAdoo, who then must give the Braves a chance to match it. Buffalo can keep him by equaling Philly's offer, but if the Braves do not match it, McAdoo is free to join the 76ers. Third, the compensation agreement, basketball's equivalent of pro football's hotly contested Rozelle Rule, will continue until 1980. This means if a player who has finished out his contract jumps to another team, his old club must be given players or draft choices as compensation by his new team. In practice, this makes it almost impossible for players to switch teams, since clubs fear they may be required to give up more in compensation than the jumping player is worth. Starting in 1980 there will be no more compensation in the NBA.

In one swoop the players have succeeded in doing away with the hated option year and the hated compensation rule. In the process they have freed themselves from the most hated part of being professional athletes. "Our problem has been that the players were bound to the team, but the team was not bound to the players," says Atlanta's Lou Hudson.

The owners also agreed to kick in $4.5 million to be shared by about 500 players as an apology for the old, evil way of doing business, plus another $1 million for the players' legal fees.

To be sure, there are some questions about all this. Make that a few thousand questions. The most important are: Why did the agreement come about so suddenly, and who is responsible for it? Will it work, or does it mean that players will be shuffling constantly from team to team? What will prevent the richer teams, especially the Knicks and Lakers, from buying up all the good players? And what does the agreement mean to other sports?

A principal figure in the deal was NBA Commissioner Larry O'Brien, who admits that as recently as a month ago he "would have bet 1,000 to 1" against settlement of the six-year dispute. But even before he took office on June 1, O'Brien sat down to lunch with the general counsel for the players, Larry Fleisher, and kicked the problem around. They immediately found they could talk to one another, thereby undermining one of management's main lines during the long years of dispute: that the players and Fleisher are irresponsible and uncooperative. From that day until the agreement finally was reached, O'Brien doggedly promoted discussions between himself and Fleisher and, subsequently, between owners and players. During the process, O'Brien also disproved another saw about the NBA: that the owners cannot agree among themselves. He persuaded them to hash out their intramural problems in a series of conferences. Without the near-unanimity produced in those meetings, last week's settlement with the players never could have been reached.

Fleisher also was instrumental in putting together the agreement. While many owners do not care to say so publicly, they concede privately that Fleisher is reasonable and, perhaps, even downright convivial. But he claims circumstances, not personalities, brought about the deal. "Let's say the climate, from the owners' point of view, was more conducive to a settlement than to a court battle," Fleisher says. What he means is that owners in all sports have been put over a judicial barrel of late. Court decisions and hints from judges in pending cases repeatedly have been telling owners that making players slaves—albeit highly paid slaves—is not the American way. The message was clear: the owners had to come up with a better system. Fast.

There were countless other individuals who played key roles in reaching the agreement, not the least of them Golden State Guard and Player Representative Jeff Mullins. At a time when the two sides seemed to have reached an impasse, he made the eminently logical suggestion that implementation of the right of first refusal be delayed for three years. Even though the players were pushing for first-right to take effect immediately, Mullins reasoned that getting the players' case through the courts would take three years, anyway. The owners countered with an offer of a five-year delay. The parties compromised at four.

The biggest fear about the first-right system is that the big-city teams will buy up the best players. Says Buffalo's Paul Snyder, an owner who voted against the agreement, "This almost assures that wealthy teams like New York and Los Angeles will never miss being in the playoffs and getting wealthier." Not so, counters Fleisher: "Do you think Detroit's Bob Lanier would go to L.A. with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar there? Besides, it's not simply a matter of dangling dollars in front of players. The new system is going to require that clubs keep players happy and motivated."

Bill Bradley of the Knicks agrees. "Nobody wants to be the eighth man in Los Angeles when he could be starting in Seattle," he says.

Lanier, who earns considerably more than the NBA average of $109,000 per year, makes no secret that he will be shopping for a new team in a few years. "If owners stuck together, I'd worry about salaries. But they never do," he says. A different view is held by former ABA Commissioner Mike Storen, who thinks owners will exert pressure on one another not to run up the bidding. All of these assessments probably are partially true and, as Fleisher and Storen suggest, the success of first-right will depend largely on the owners, who must retain their new spirit of cooperation among themselves and also develop better management techniques to ensure that their star players will want to stay around.

But what about the 90% of the players who are of average ability? Says Storen, "It won't affect them, except psychologically. I mean, who's going to chase an ordinary player?" The players do not expect helter-skelter switching; the owners are unsure of what will happen. "There will be a bunch of haves, led by New York and L.A.," says the general manager of a team likely to prosper under any system, "and a bunch of have-nots. The best teams will be better than they are now, and the worst ones will be worse. That will wreck the league, because you cannot expect people to buy tickets to see a team on a 28-game losing streak, whether that team's at home or on the road."

Other owners see a less dismal future, although they agree that the times ahead are uncertain. "It's like leaving Manhattan and suddenly moving to Zaïre," says Knicks president Mike Burke. "You don't know until you get there what adjustments you'll have to make, although you know there will be plenty of them."

O'Brien, going on the theory that mistakes are for this life and perfection for the next, says that one of the charms of this 10-year agreement is that everyone will sit down again in 1986 and work out the wrinkles. "Anybody who knows sports and law and society and sees what we have done knows this is classic give-and-take," he says. Meanwhile, the business of the NBA will go on, including absorption of some ABA teams—the denial of such intentions by NBA owners notwithstanding.

What did the owners get out of the agreement? "I can't think of anything," says Lanier. That's not quite right. The owners did get a resolution of a dispute (technically, the agreement is an out-of-court settlement of a class-action lawsuit brought in 1970 by former Players Association President Oscar Robertson that was scheduled for trial later this year) that has cost them big bucks. Management figured to lose that case—which would have resulted in the loss of many more dollars and, worse, the imposition of a personnel system approved by a judge. Since the judge would be neither a player nor an owner, chances are his system would be less beneficial to basketball than one arrived at through negotiations among men involved in the sport. And the owners did get a delay in the right of first refusal, enabling them to negotiate long-term contracts with key players before the big change.

While basketball was putting the finishing touches on its new system last week, major league baseball owners again were slapped down in their chaotic battle to maintain an old framework. Andy Messersmith, who won 19 games for Los Angeles last year, and retired Pitcher Dave McNally are contending that baseball's reserve clause, the provision that management says binds a player to a team for life, should be interpreted as a one-year, nonrenewable option.

In December an arbitrator ruled in favor of the players, so the owners fired him and went to court to have his decision overturned. Last week a judge ruled in favor of the players. Since the owners do not have the option of firing the judge, they now are trying to figure out what to do next. Most baseball men are unstirred by the basketball agreement and the spirit of compromise that brought it about. The sport's hard-liners seem to be winning out by calling for an appeal of the latest ruling all the way to the Supreme Court. That is likely to be a futile and very expensive gesture.

Marvin Miller, head of the players union, is gloomy over baseball's labor negotiations and claims that the owners have "gone into shock and hysteria over installing a one-year option that has already been eliminated by basketball."

Messersmith, lounging in the sun in Palm Springs, Calif., quietly celebrated his victory. "Baseball hasn't been unfair to me," he said. "It's not that we are slaves. It's just that we don't have any method of mobility like everyone else in this country has."

And that is the problem in all pro leagues—finding some way of squaring the law and individual freedoms with the necessity of a structured arrangement in sports. Baseball has barely begun to approach the problem, and NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle does not even want to talk about the effect of the basketball decision on his game. But time for such stonewalling has run out on Rozelle because a judge ruled recently that the Rozelle Rule is unconstitutional. NFL owners must get to talking on issues similar to those addressed by their basketball counterparts, and those discussions must be in the same spirit of compromise that led to the NBA agreement.

Ed Garvey, head of the NFL Players Association, claims he is ready to do that. "If the owners want to justify restrictions, they should show us the balance sheets that prove they can't do without them," he says. "We're reasonable."

But Pat Peppler, general manager of the Atlanta Falcons, shakes his head. "I've got to believe that there's an appeals court somewhere in this country that is going to hand down a decision in favor of the owners," he says.

Perhaps. But don't bet on it. The NBA owners have taken a much safer gamble by working with their players.

ILLUSTRATION

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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Eagle (-2)
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Bogey (+1)
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