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Lock out the lawyers

This Christmas day, sports fans will welcome the beginning of an abbreviated National Basketball Association season. The season, much like the National Football League season, was saved from a lockout and protracted litigation — no thanks to some of the lawyers involved who stereotypically seemed only to get in the way of parties who were otherwise desperate to come to an agreement. In the end, it took a lockout of the lawyers in each dispute to get an agreement done.

Execution of a new NFL collective bargaining agreement depended largely on the owners and players agreeing how to split the league’s $9 billion revenue. Other issues included a proposal to extend the regular season, establishment of a salary cap and the implementation of health and safety measures. The owners claimed they were losing money due to player salaries, while the players believed some owners simply wished to renegotiate their own revenue sharing agreements.

Unfortunately, negotiations on a new agreement broke down, the players union decertified and a group of players took the league to court. Most reports seem to indicate a deal was inevitable and a compromise would be worked out. But those same reports indicated lawyers involved in the negotiations were not helping the situation. NFL Players’ Association executive director DeMaurice Smith at one point had to tell lawyers for his side to “stand down.” Both sides eventually made a point of meeting and negotiating “in secret” and without the lawyers in the room.

Litigation in federal court and an appeal to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals only frustrated negotiations. A deal was finally reached to save the NFL season, but probably no one would agree that the lawyers helped.

Almost the very same thing can be said for the NBA lockout, which involved some of the very same lawyers as in the NFL negotiations.

The NBA negotiations between owners and players involved many of the same issues as in the NFL lockout, with the primary issues being how to split billions in revenue between owners and players and between large-market teams and small-market teams and player salary caps.

While the NFL was able to salvage a full season, the NBA dispute quickly ate into the regular 82-game season with a lockout by the owners, dissolution of the players’ union and lawsuits filed by players in California and Minnesota federal courts. During the dispute a lawyer for the players stoked racial animosities when he criticized the owners’ bargaining style and accused them of treating the players like “plantation workers.” The prospect of a deal seemed lost and those comments certainly didn’t help.

But finally, at a point when many thought the NBA season lost, a deal was struck virtually overnight Nov. 26. Some assumed that it was the players’ litigation that accelerated a deal but, actually, it was players’ union executive director Billy Hunter’s benching of the union’s counsel that apparently made the difference. Hunter called another veteran attorney to complete the deal.

So, despite the lawyers, we’ve enjoyed professional football and will soon enjoy professional basketball again.

“Getting to yes” with an attorney shouldn’t be an oxymoron. Hopefully, despite the prominent examples of the NFL and NBA lockouts, we can get to the point where lawyers aren’t seen as an inefficiency and an impediment to a deal but as trusted advisors to our clients who facilitate getting business done.

Happy holidays everyone!

One comment

  1. Or … maybe the players and owners were extraordinarily tone deaf, given that a significant percentage of the American sports-watching public is unemployed? And in response to the backlash, they decided that saving face by blaming the lawyers was more palatable than admitting this miscalculation?