(Editor’s Note: Additional stories about the recent Sports Lawyers Association conference in San Francisco will appear in future issues of the Alert.)
One of the traditional highlights of the SLA conference is the Saturday forums, where labor and management from each of the major four professional sports entities take turns offering a situational analysis of their respective sport.
In the past, sparks have been a constant, as each side staked out a position on issues, such as labor relations.
It was a little different this time as the most significant controversy seemed to center on long-time NFL labor leader Gene Upshaw and whether he treats former NFL players with the same treatment that he affords the current ones.
The stage had been set the day before at the conference when during a session spearheaded by Manatt lawyer Ronald S. Katz, Upshaw was roundly criticized for his treatment of retired NFL Players.
Upshaw didn’t go there at first, opting instead to talk about current labor relations and how he expects management to opt out of the current agreement before it expires in 2012 (which they did a couple days later). “If that happens, 2009 will be the last capped year,” said Upshaw.
“Since 1993, we have smoothly extended our agreement each time it came up,” he said. “All along I said the only time we would have a problem was when either side gets greedy. The owners are about to get greedy. The owners feel like they are losing money. Well, to the owners, a loss means they didn’t make as much as they thought they would.”
Upshaw then switched to the retired player issue, starting it off by taking a shot at the SLA: “I didn’t know at the SLA that you could pay to be speaker.” Upshaw’s barb was directed squarely at Manatt, a sponsor of the conference with a booth.
“I would challenge anyone to show that they have done more for the retired players than I have. For individuals to say I don’t care is wrong. It was also said yesterday that I don’t care about players I played against. People who say that don’t know me. And if they continue to say it then they are a liar.”
Upshaw was preceded by his good friend Dan Fehr, the iconic labor leader for the MLBPA.
Fehr revisited the fact that baseball was in the midst of labor piece, which he attributed to all the suffering that occurred in the previous decades.
Fehr then turned to the Mitchell Report, noting that the union was only given one hour’s notice before it was released to the public.
“If there were things in there that were flat wrong, no one within the union had a chance to act on it,” said Fehr. “It was a purely management endeavor.”
Fehr went on to note that in a “normal employee relationship,” the player would have a hearing, something they were not afforded in the wake of the Mitchell report.
Much of the NBPA head Billy Hunter discussion addressed the now infamous “one and done rule” in college basketball. Hunter was in favor of either maintaining it, or repealing entirely. He certainly was not inclined to extending it to two years as has been proposed in the public arena, an idea he deemed “farcical.”
“Of the top ten players in the NBA, seven came straight out of high school,” said Hunter. “The other three came out after one year.”
Hunter added that he was “not inclined to give money to the NCAA money machine” by encouraging such players to work for free in a college program
He also noted that players in the NBA, who are 31 or 32 are not getting the big contracts that the younger players are getting, making the point that postponing their entry into the NBA effectively reduces the amount of money they can earn over their career.
Shortly thereafter, the leagues got their chance to address the 200 or so in attendance
Leading it off was Joel Litvin, the NBA’s President, League and Basketball Operations. .
With limited labor strife to talk about, Litvin talked about how crisis management has become a critical component in his job description.
He woke up the crowd with a humorous story about a recent incident where he had not been as attentive as he normally is the NBA’s post-season games
Litvin said he had opted on a Saturday night to watch the movie America Gangster with his wife, instead of a New Orleans Hornets playoff game.
The phone rang, and he could see that it was David Stern. He answered, and Stern asked if he had seen what happened to the Hugo the Hornet mascot. Litvin said he didn’t know what had happened to Hugo. “But I told him I knew what had happened in American Gangster,” Litvin said. “He wasn’t amused.”
Hugo had actually created a fire, while doing one of his stunts. “I got off the phone thinking that Hugo the hornet was on fire.”
Litvin also discussed the scenario in Seattle, where the Sonics are leaving the city after close to four decades.
“This is not a happy story,” he said. “But we and team had run out of options. Key Arena is substandard. The owners are losing a lot of money. We have had several failed attempts at putting together a public-private partnership.”
Litvin explained that the problem was that that the citizens had voted that any arena financed with public money must generate a fair return, which it deemed would be the equivalent of a 30-year Treasury.
“We respect their decision. We would like it if they respected our decision.”