Tuesday, April 26, 2011

New Sports Illustrated Column: How does NFL Ruling Impact the NBA and NBA Players?

In a new SI column, I write the potential impact of Judge Nelson's order in favor of NFL players on the NBA and NBA players, two groups which are headed for a similar labor crisis this summer and possibly into next season.

Here's an excerpt:
NBA players may be less able to show irreparable harm caused by a lockout.

Another factor in a trial judge's decision to grant a preliminary injunction is whether the plaintiffs -- be they NFL players or NBA players -- would suffer irreparable harm if the injunction is denied. Irreparable harm refers to a harm that cannot be adequately remedied by money damages.

Nelson, in relying on numerous affidavits, including from such prominent player agents as Neil Cornich and Tom Condon, determined that NFL players would suffer irreparable harm if they missed the 2011 season. During that time, players would age, and given that NFL players are usually in their 20s or early 30s and usually only play a few seasons, missing just one year of football might be akin to the typical person, who normally works decades in his/her lifetime, missing many years of work. Players would also lose out on conditioning and training opportunities. And as Nelson ruled, free agents are hurt even before a missed 2011 season since they cannot sign with teams during a locked out off season. She also found that 2011 rookies would be particularly hurt by a lockout since they would return in 2012 after missing a year of football -- in both the pros and college -- and then be expected to compete with 2012 rookies, who would be fresh off playing in college.

Most of Nelson's logic holds true for NBA players, as well. In fact, to advance her reasoning on irreparable harm, she cited Spencer Haywood's successful antitrust suit against the NBA in 1971. Haywood, one of the best players in the rival American Basketball Association and then a signee of the Seattle SuperSonics, was barred from entering the NBA until four years after his high-school graduation. The NBA's restriction had not been collectively bargained and was thus subject to antitrust law. A court found that he would suffer irreparable harm by missing four years of playing in the NBA.

The presence of alternative employment opportunities in pro basketball, however, could sway a different judge, particularly one who is more inclined than Nelson to favor the league's views. Indeed, if the NBA instituted a lockout, some players would likely seek and obtain comparable employment in Europe and elsewhere. While those leagues impose restrictions on the number of U.S. players allowed on rosters, the restrictions could be changed in the event of the supply of available NBA players suddenly surges on July 1. The NBA would argue that irreparable harm should not be found if players can pursue comparable opportunities elsewhere.

In response, however, NBA players would likely cite the Haywood case: even though Haywood could play professionally in the ABA, a court nonetheless found that he suffered irreparable harm by not being able to play in the NBA. NBA players would probably also charge that playing and living abroad should not constitute an equivalent employment opportunity to playing in the NBA and living in one's home country.