Will We Ever Watch Pro Basketball Again?

A guide to the NBA labor strife



If you're like most people, you can barely make head or tail of the NBA's lockout-turned-lawsuit. What does it mean to 'disclaim' a union? What's BRI anyway? And when might we actually get to see LeBron James come up small in the fourth quarter again?

Here's a primer on the NBA labor strife:

I thought there was a lockout, now there's a lawsuit. What happened?

The simple answer is that negotiations between the players and owners failed. After moving slowly but surely closer to an agreement, the league (synonymous for the purposes of this article with 'the owners') gave the players an ultimatum last Monday: Take our latest offer or leave it, because it's not getting any better.

The offer gave the players an opportunity to receive more than 50% of BRI (that's Basketball-Related Income, which includes most income brought by the NBA but notably excludes operating expenses), but it also introduced a myriad of systemic changes, including raising the minimum age to enter the league from 19 to 20 and barring sign-and-trade deals for teams who pay a luxury tax because they exceeded the salary cap. The players ultimately decided the deal wasn't good enough, and with negotiations at a permanent standstill they decided to move the dispute to the courts.

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What civil claims are the players alleging in court?

In a complaint filed in California federal court, the players alleged that the league committed antitrust violations by locking the players out. The suit claimed that the NBA conspired to "boycott players" by trying to force them to take massive reductions in compensation as part of a new collective bargaining agreement.

OK. But I've been hearing that the players 'disclaimed' their union instead of decertifying like their NFL counterparts did in March . What's the difference?

As sports law professor Gabriel Feldman told the Orlando Sentinel , a disclaimer occurs when the union itself says it no longer wants to represent its members, while a decertification requires a formal vote from the union members in front of the National Labor Relations Board where more than half the members vote to disband the union.

Unlike decertification, disclaiming is an immediate process, no formal vote required. But like decertification, it allows the union to be recast a trade organization, clearing the way for an antitrust suit to be filed. Under U.S. labor law, a union cannot make antitrust claims; it must disband in some manner and have its members file as individual plaintiffs in a potential class action.

Got it. So what exactly are the two sides fighting about?

That's been covered ad nauseum by the press, but a brief recap here: money. Under the old CBA, the players received 57% of BRI, and in the early stage of negotiations the owners essentially wanted to flip that figure - they would get 57% of BRI and the players would get 43%. If that seems like a lot, it is: The difference between 57% and 43% of BRI last year was about $535 million.

The sides also disagree on contract length and how to structure the salary cap, among other issues. But it really comes down to the money.

What are the players' chances in court?

Too early to tell unfortunately, since the court hasn't issued a ruling of any kind in the case yet. But the players smartly filed suit in the Northern District of California, which has traditionally been union-friendly. The players are seeking a summary judgment that says the lockout is illegal and an injunction ending the lockout. They may also finally get access to the league's financial records in the discovery phase of the suit, if it gets that far.

Enough! You're making my head hurt. When are we going to see games again???

Not anytime soon. The league has already cancelled games through Dec. 15, and each week that passes without a deal makes a season of any kind less likely. But moving the dispute into the legal arena only moves the finish line farther away. For argument's sake, let's say the players succeed in getting an expedited ruling in the case and the court grants their motion for an injunction stopping the lockout. Both sides would still have to go back to the negotiating table and hammer out a deal before any season-related activities began. And with the holiday season coming up (judges' least favorite time to be at work), an expedited ruling might not be so expedited. So hope for a miracle, but expect there to be no 2011-12 season.