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3Qs: Is the NBA season doomed?

Photo by Mary Knox Merrill.

On Monday, the NBA players rejected the league’s latest offer, began the process of disbanding their union and prepared for legal action against the owners. This development in the NBA labor negotiations could jeopardize the entire 2011–2012 season. We asked Roger Abrams, Richardson Professor of Law at Northeastern University’s School of Law, to discuss the legal details of the NBA lockout, and what both sides seek to gain and lose going forward.

How did the NBA lockout get to this point of legal action? Why do players see an advantage in going to court?

The decision of the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) to disband their union offers the players an opportunity to use the federal antitrust law in their “battle” with the owners. Many of the restrictions contained in the collective bargaining agreement between the owners and the players’ union — such as limitations on salaries and the movement of players — would violate the antitrust laws if they were not the product of free and open collective bargaining. Without a union, the owners may risk antitrust damages, which will be trebled under national law.

What does filing an antitrust action against the NBA mean for both players and owners? What do both sides seek to gain and lose from taking legal action?

The use of the courts in lieu of collective bargaining is rarely done in labor relations. Unions have generally been disappointed by court actions. There comes a time, however, when you need some additional “weapons” to support your position in collective bargaining. It is a drastic step to disband the union, but the players felt they needed to take that step to preserve the gains won over many years and some modicum of respect from the owners. The owners would have preferred, of course, for the union to accept their “final offer.” Now they will have go on defense in court. (And, as you know, defense wins or loses championships.)

How does this situation compare to what the NFL, its owners and players went through this summer, and how could this all turn out compared to that situation? What is the likelihood that there will even be a shortened NBA season?

The NBPA is using the same tactic already followed by the NFL Players Association earlier this year. While the NFLPA was successful in the federal district court in Minnesota, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the parties were still involved in a labor dispute, and thus the court ruled it could not order an injunction stopping the owners’ lockout because courts do not have the power to do so under national law in a labor dispute. That stopped the litigation, and the parties then reached a deal.

I think this entire NBA season is now doomed. It will take some time for a court to rule on the players’ claim. There will then be an appeal, however the lower court rules. But at least college basketball has started.