Our new issue, “War Is a Racket,” is out now. Get a discounted $20 print subscription today!

LeBron and the Union

Things are going well for NBA players. But their livelihoods still rest in the hands of the league’s stars.

LeBron James in an April 2008 game against the Washington Wizards. Keith Allison / Flickr

Even LeBron James needs a union. The Cleveland Cavaliers superstar may rake in over $75 million a year between his salary and endorsement deals. First and foremost, however, he’s an employee; league ownership does not guarantee these benefits. LeBron’s participation in the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) reflects this reality. Since 2015, the league’s single most important player has also served as its union’s vice president.

More than any other sport, professional basketball’s central storylines — and its real balance of power — revolve around the trials and triumphs of its elite protagonists. The same goes for the NBPA.

Throughout the league’s history, the highest paid and most recognizable players have taken a leading role in the union and the players’ struggle to secure an equitable share of NBA riches. Today, Chris Paul, the nine-time All-Star point guard for the Los Angeles Clippers, serves as union president; LeBron is vice president; and both Knicks megastar Carmelo Anthony and reigning MVP Steph Curry belong to the eight-man executive committee.

Stars may control the union, but rank-and-file members, who have vastly different conditions and concerns, outnumber them. LeBron James can have his pick of employers and is virtually guaranteed the maximum salary for his entire career — which, incidentally, will last until he chooses to retire. He makes more from additional revenue streams than he does playing, so, once he calls it quits, he can capitalize on his brand in perpetuity.

For the average NBA player, the clock is ticking from the moment he signs his first contract. Rather than choosing the team he’d most like to play for, he’ll go to whichever employer wants him. He most likely has no additional income from endorsements, and his earning power is limited to his playing career’s brief window — on average, less than five full seasons.

Granted, the median NBA salary sits a little above $2 million a year. After taxes and agent fees, and spread out over a lifetime, this amounts to a comfortable upper middle-class income. But it is hardly commensurate with the amount of money that flows through the NBA each season.

This vast income disparity between star and non-star members makes the NBPA one of the most idiosyncratic unions in the country. The dynamic between these two distinct membership castes produces constant challenges to solidarity.

We shouldn’t blame this on the famous leadership. Any gains the union has made have come thanks to the stars’ leverage. But they have distinct concerns that can at times preempt — or even contradict — those of players in general or the rank and file in particular.

When the union pursues universal goals, like pension increases, health care, or improved working conditions, the tension between these castes is mitigated, solidarity is preserved, and collective, confrontational action becomes a real possibility. However, when the union pursues goals that serve (or can be interpreted as serving) one caste over the other, it threatens solidarity and gives owners the upper hand.

The Twenty-Two-Minute Strike

The NBPA has always relied on star players’ involvement. Boston’s Hall of Fame guard Bob Cousy organized it in 1954 by allying with the top players on the other eight teams.

At first, they didn’t ask for much. Their main grievance in 1954 was the so-called whispering fine, a $15 penalty referees could unilaterally impose on players who protested their calls. Over the next several years, however, the players’ demands grew bolder and their posture toward ownership more confrontational.

This militancy reached an early peak at the 1964 All-Star Game. For the first time in league history, the NBA planned to televise the game live and in primetime, giving the players incredible leverage. The union had recently demanded the creation of a pension system; frustrated that they had received no response, the players refused to take the floor until the owners agreed.

A tense scene unfolded. The players huddled together, barricaded in their locker room, while the owners, incensed by their employees’ insubordination, roamed the arena’s hallways, barking orders and making threats. With tip-off fast approaching, ABC told the league that if the game didn’t start on time, they would pull the plug on the live telecast.

Thirty minutes later, league commissioner Walter Kennedy assured the players that their demands would be met, and the game, only slightly delayed, went ahead as planned. The near-boycott, which became known as “the twenty-two-minute strike,” represented an overwhelming victory for the players, who now recognized the power of collective action.

NBPA militancy continued under the stewardship of Oscar Robertson, another all-time great. In 1967, players won several significant concessions: an increase in pension benefits, health insurance and life insurance for active players, and time off around the All-Star Game. The union made these strides through solidarity and an era-specific sense of urgency, with 117 of 120 NBPA members vowing to strike if their demands weren’t met.

Star leadership became essential role to the union’s strategy. According to labor historian Michael Schiavone, the players’ ability to advance their interests practically depended on it. “Collective bargaining in sports is different than most other industries,” he says.

[T]he stars are more likely to want to take militant action compared to the so-called journeymen. The stars have the money to deal with a prolonged strike, [while] the journeymen, let alone someone trying to gain a foothold in the league, are less likely to go out on strike.

In 1970, with solidarity at an all-time high, the players set their sights on their biggest struggle to date: overturning the reserve clause, a near-feudal contract provision that bound players to a team indefinitely. They filed a class action suit — with Robertson as the lead plaintiff — that challenged the clause on antitrust grounds. While the players never threatened to stop work, the NBPA-backed suit highlights that era’s militancy and the shared sense of purpose within the league’s ranks.

After a protracted legal battle, a federal judge ruled in the players’ favor in 1975: they were now free to choose their employers. But, in a twist unique to sports leagues, players were also allowed to negotiate their salaries as dictated by the open market. At a moment when the union wielded incredible power, it also laid the groundwork for its own undoing.

Two Castes

One of the great ironies of the NPBA’s history is that its biggest victory — free agency — inadvertently weakened players’ collective power by created the economic caste system that would endanger solidarity. After the elimination of the reserve clause, economic stratification exploded.

In 1977, the highest paid player — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — earned $650,000 a year, roughly four and a half times the league average and twenty-one times the league minimum. Twenty years later, Michael Jordan was earning $33 million a year: fifteen times the average, and 136 times the minimum. Most unions reduce economic inequality, but, by ushering in free agency, the NBPA actually intensified it.

Instead of fighting to improve conditions for all NBA players, the union’s star leadership became most concerned with making sure they earned as much as humanly possible. In 1984, the league introduced a salary cap in an attempt to adapt to the changing landscape. The deal gave players a share of league profit in exchange for agreeing to limit their combined salaries. This favored stars, whose salaries gobbled up the lion’s share of cap space. Rank-and-file players were paid out of whatever remained and began to believe stars were taking money directly from their pockets.

This tension came to a head in 1995. That summer, the owners initiated a lockout in response to ongoing and unsuccessful contract negotiations. A group of star players, including Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, and Reggie Miller — all guided by super-agent David Falk — led a radical effort to decertify the union. They argued that they could get a better deal through decertification and a subsequent injunction against the lockout, which would lessen the owners’ leverage.

But many rank-and-file members distrusted the dissident faction. Jordan and his fellow stars were mostly focused on getting rid of the proposed luxury tax that penalized teams for signing free agents in excess of the salary cap — an issue that only affected the highest paid players. By a vote of 226 to 134, the decertification attempt failed, and the rest of the NBPA negotiated a contract that largely ignored the stars’ interests.

The situation grew even more dire just three years later. A bizarre clause in the 1995 deal allowed owners to reopen negotiations if salaries passed a certain threshold. When the Minnesota Timberwolves signed twenty-one-year-old Kevin Garnett to a six-year, $126 million contract in 1997, owners worried that high player salaries would cut into their profits and locked the players out once again.

By this point, Commissioner David Stern — an experienced union-buster — realized that he could exploit the division between star and non-star players and undermine solidarity. He proposed increasing minimum salaries in exchange for capping the largest contracts. The deal transparently sought to pit the interests of stars against those of the rank and file.

Beset by infighting and facing the loss of the 1998–99 season, the players eventually agreed to a version of Stern’s proposal. For the first time in sports history, the league instituted a maximum contract rule, placing strict limits on the top talent’s earning potential. Stern’s machinations had successfully split the union, and its two castes turned against each other.

Crying Poor

The 1999 contract alienated a generation of star players, who did not believe the union advanced their interests and could not see how its larger goals pertained to them. They began to distance themselves from the NBPA.

The union found itself on the defensive, and the owners, sensing weakness, pressed their advantage. In 2005, they pushed through provisions policing player behavior, increasing drug testing and implementing a dress code so strict that some critics viewed it as outright racism. Then, in 2011, they redoubled their efforts to shore up their own profits and attempted to slash the salary cap’s size.

The salary cap is the agreed-upon percentage of “Basketball Related Income” (BRI), which includes broadcast deals, attendance receipts, and licensing and merchandise, that goes to players. Because the NBPA doesn’t negotiate individual salaries, bargaining for the highest possible share of this revenue is arguably the union’s most important function. That percentage not only structures wages; it defines the balance of power between owners and players as a class. According to the 2005 contract, players could receive 57 percent of BRI. In 2011, the owners insisted that players accept just 45 percent, and when the NBPA balked, they initiated another lockout.

Throughout these negotiations, the owners cried poverty, insisting that, absent severe cuts, many franchises would go out of business. Yet their claims of financial hardship rang hollow. Public data showed that the league earned close to $200 million in 2009–2010 and had turned a consistent profit every season for the preceding decade.

Moreover, whether or not an individual franchise loses money in a given year doesn’t affect its market value. Of the nine franchises that changed hands between 2005 and 2011, none sold at a loss, and several sold well above their public valuations. For example, Starbucks billionaire Howard Schultz purchased the Seattle SuperSonics in 2001 for $200 million dollars. The Sonics did not report a profit for the next five years. Yet, in 2006, Schultz sold the team for $350 million — a 75 percent increase in value over just six years. Today, the franchise — now the Oklahoma City Thunder — is valued at over $1 billion. It would probably fetch far more.

The 2011 lockout didn’t reflect financial realities. It reflected a power disparity: the owners had it, and the NBPA — riven by caste conflict, and lacking star leadership — did not. The players tried to resist the owners’ demands for such a draconian pay cut, but they could not mount an effective pushback. A month into the season, the two sides settled on a BRI split of roughly fifty-fifty.

This represented an enormous victory for the owners, who shifted as much as $300 million per year away from the players. But the move got the attention of several stars, who became tangentially involved toward the end of negotiations. After the lockout ended, several of them joined NBPA leadership. Chris Paul was elected president in 2013, and LeBron joined as his number two in 2015.

As the next round of negotiations approached — accelerated by the need to address a new television contract — players hoped that the union could claw back some of its recent losses. But they also worried that a return to star leadership would exacerbate the same caste tensions that undermined solidarity in the first place.

James, in particular, has been critical of the salary cap: “I don’t think my value on the floor can really be compensated . . . because of the [contract].” He had also publicly considered leaving the NBA to play in Greece, where there are no limits on individual salaries and he would likely earn twice his current pay. If other stars took up this threat, they would have incredible leverage that could be wielded on behalf of their fellow workers or end up eroding the NBPA itself.

Solidarity

Once again, the issue was solidarity. Would James, Paul, and the rest of the leadership bolster the trust and cohesion between players? Or would the vicious dynamics of intercaste conflict reassert themselves?

The NBPA forever runs the risk of going the way of any center-left party. With stars in charge, it could easily become an organization ostensibly committed to advancing working-class interests with elite leaders whose priorities often diverge from — and in some cases, conflict with — the broader base they are supposed to represent. Judged by this standard, the latest contract, the details of which began leaking last month, is decidedly mixed.

On the one hand, the NBPA won concessions that benefit all players: a 50 percent increase in pensions for retirees and lifetime health benefits for players with at least three years of service. In a less noted but perhaps more significant victory, players secured a greater voice for themselves in setting and enforcing workplace rules. Players also now have greater authority to critique referees’ decisions; in the past, they could not criticize specific officials, but they can now call out offending refs by name. The NBPA also secured four seats on the powerful Competition Committee, which determines the rules of play.

All players will clearly benefit from these provisions, and they preserve and even deepen player solidarity. Yet several features had the opposite effect.

Take, for example, the new “under thirty-eight” rule, an obscure tweak to existing contract language that will allow veterans as old as thirty-eight to sign longer and more lucrative contracts. This measure will have no bearing on most players’ shorter careers. Only a handful of older superstars, including Chris Paul and LeBron James, will benefit. In fact, they are expected to pocket tens of millions of dollars more than they otherwise would have thanks to this change.

As for the division of league profits, the union succeeded in expanding the definition of BRI such that more obscure revenue streams, including arena signage and luxury suite receipts, are now fully included in the calculation of league income. Yet the all-important split in BRI will remain where it was, at roughly fifty-fifty. Given the union’s weakened state, this isn’t surprising. After a decade-long effort to reduce the players’ share, owners would fiercely oppose any increase, almost certainly leading to a lockout that only a unified NBPA could endure.

Going forward, players’ class advancement once again rests in the hands of the league’s stars. Should they continue to fight for their narrow interests by making further tweaks like the under-thirty-eight rule, solidarity will be further undermined. However, if they focus on broader class interests — like pensions, health care, and players’ share of BRI — they can build trust within the membership and pave the way for more radical measures.

History has shown that a star-powered NBPA has enormous strength. But it needs rank-and-file solidarity to wield it.