NEW YORK — The NBA and players’ association are ready to try mediation, and Commissioner David Stern wants results quickly.
Stern said last week during an interview with WFAN radio in New York that without a deal Tuesday, when the sides meet with federal mediator George Cohen, his “gut” was that there wouldn’t be NBA basketball on Christmas.
Owners are opening two days of board meetings Wednesday, and Stern wants to be able to bring a deal to them.
But can a mediator swoop in and smooth out two years of bickering in one day?
Attorney Jay Krupin, chair of EpsteinBeckerGreen’s national labor practice in Washington, doesn’t think so — unless the players are prepared to concede on some issues.
“If the players want to get back on the court, then this is a great time for them to try to show that they’re willing to make some type of compromise, and I think that’s what it is,” he said. “This is an opportunity to really determine whether or not the players are willing to make concessions. I think the owners are willing to walk away without concessions, so if the players really w ant to make concessions when they meet, that has to be expressed to the mediator.
“If that happens, then the burden turns to the NBA to say, ‘All right, you’ll be willing to make some concessions; now we’re willing to talk.’ If they’re not willing to make concessions, then the mediation would just go on for the day and it’ll let the NBA know that they probably have to cancel, go through Christmas and maybe even the rest of the season.”
Players already feel they’ve conceded plenty financially, and they dismissed Stern’s attempt to attach added importance to Tuesday’s talks, with union president Derek Fisher of the Lakers saying it was just an “arbitrary deadline” for potential Christmas cancellations.
Stern was clear in the radio interview and others he gave late last week that he was just stating his opinion about further losses of games — but not about his desire for significant movement Tuesday.
“If there’s a breakthrough, it’s going to come on Tuesday,” he told NBA TV. “And if not, I think that the season is really going to potentially escape from us because we aren’t making any progress.”
Cohen, who tried to resolve the NFL’s labor dispute, met with the sides individually at their offices in New York on Monday. He will then oversee talks between their full bargaining committees Tuesday at a hotel.
He said last week he had already been in contact with representatives of both sides “for a number of months,” so he’s familiar with some of the issues that still divide them.
Players oppose a hard salary cap, and they believe owners’ attempts to make the luxury tax more punitive and limit the use of spending exceptions will effectively create one. Also, each side has formally proposed receiving 53 percent of basketball-related income after players were guaranteed 57 percent under the previous collective bargaining agreement.
With so many issues remaining beyond those, it seems too much to get done in one day. Executive director Billy Hunter said Friday after meeting with players in Los Angeles that the union sought to have the whole week set aside for mediation, but that the league wouldn’t commit to that because of its owners meetings.
“The Board of Governors meeting has been scheduled for a year for Wednesday and Thursday. We told the mediator that we would make ourselves available day and night on all other days,” Stern said in a statement to The Associated Press.
Cohen was appointed director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service by President Barack Obama in 2009. He helped broker a deal between Major League Soccer and its players just before the season was scheduled to begin and was lead lawyer for the baseball players’ union when it won an injunction against its owners in 1995, ending the 7 1/2-month strike.
Krupin calls Cohen “a very good mediator” and “wonderful gentleman,” saying, “If there’s a real interest in the parties trying to get something done, George would be able to make it happen .”
But, he adds, that’s dependent on the players.
“It’s much easier for the federal mediator to say to the players, ‘Look at the scale where we are. Really the owners have very little to lose. They made a long-term investment. As players, you have only a few years to play at your peak and the owners can hold out a lot longer than you can. So when you look at this objectively, you really should try to understand that there has to be a c hange in the system,”’ Krupin said.
“And I think that’s why the commissioner said, ‘I’m going to give you Tuesday. I’m not going to meet the rest of the week.’ I think that (owners) know they have the upper hand and they’re giving them the opportunity to reach a deal, and so I don’t see George having to put great thoughts into either side’s mind. I think that George can be used as a facilitator to try to get a deal if the players really wanted one.”