NBA Players Cry Monopoly as Union Disbands


     MINNEAPOLIS - Four NBA players on Tuesday filed a federal class action against the league, claiming its 30 clubs conspired to enforce an "unlawful group boycott and price-fixing arrangement," to eliminate competition for free agents and boycott rookies seeking their first contract. In decertifying their union on Monday, the NBA players adopted the same tactic the NFL players used this spring to fight their owners' lockout.
     The named plaintiffs are James Caron Butler, a free agent who last played with the Dallas Mavericks, the Detroit Pistons' Ben Gordon, and the Minnesota Timberwolves' Anthony Tolliver and Derrick Williams.
     In the 27-page complaint, the ballplayers say the purpose of the group boycott is to make players "succumb to a new anticompetitive system of player restraints which will, among other things, drastically reduce player compensation levels below those that would exist in a competitive market."
     They say the NBA cannot defend its antitrust violations by "hiding" behind a non-statutory labor exemption to antitrust laws: "Under Supreme Court precedent and settled law in this Circuit, that exemption only conceivably applies as long as a collective bargaining process exists between the NBA defendants and the players. Here, however, the collective bargaining process and relationship have completely broken down, and the NBA players have exercised their labor law right not to be in a union."
     That, of course, is precisely the argument the NFL players made in Tom Brady et al. v. National Football League et al. this spring.
     The Butler complaint continues: "Specifically, after more than two years of futile bargaining, and the refusal of the NBA to negotiate any further, the NBA players ended the role of the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) as their collective bargaining representative and no longer have a collective bargaining relationship with the NBA defendants. The consequence is that any labor exemption to the antitrust laws no longer applies.
     "Independent of their federal antitrust violations, the NBA defendants' boycott also gives rise to state law contractual and tort claims on behalf of plaintiffs and class members. There is no 'labor exemption' or any other legal justification for the NBA defendants agreeing not to adhere to the terms of operative player contracts and to interfere with the right of players not under contract to seek employment for their services as professional basketball players."
     The Butler plaintiffs say the NBA declined to extend the 2005 collective bargaining agreement "because of its stated desire to achieve a massive 'reset' in player salaries and the imposition of a new, far more restrictive set of restraints in the player market that would severely reduce competition for the services of NBA players."
     The NBA on Nov. 10 offered its final bargaining "ultimatum," which would reduce players' share of Basketball Related Income (BRI) from 57 percent to 50 percent.
     The NBA told the players' union "that it was making this final 'revised' offer for just a few days and that if the NBPA did not accept this offer by the following Monday or Tuesday, the offer would be withdrawn and replaced with an even more onerous offer that would reduce the players' BRI share to 47 percent and impose what amounted to a hard salary cap," according to the complaint.
     On Monday, the NBPA Board of Player Representatives "met and took action to immediately terminate the NBPA's status as the players' collective bargaining representative effective at 12 noon, Eastern time on November 14," the complaint states.
     The NBPA notified the NBA that day that it was no longer the collective bargaining representative for the players. And "The NBPA is in the process of amending its bylaws to prohibit it or its members from engaging in collective bargaining with the NBA, the NBA's member clubs or their agents."
     The players say the NBA violated the Sherman Act. They seek class certification, an injunction, and damages for breach of contract, tortious interference with contract, and tortious interference with prospective contract.
     Their lead counsel is Barbara Podlucky Berens with Berens & Miller.
     The New York Knicks' Carmelo Anthony and four other players filed identical claims on the same day in an Oakland, Calif., federal court. John Cove with Boies, Schiller & Flexner represents that proposed class.