The six-year agreement announced last week by the NBA and the league's players' association is a tribute to both Larry Fleisher, who is about to retire after 26 years of representing the union, and NBA commissioner David Stern. Though negotiations had been stalled for more than a year, the two sides worked with a common goal: the prosperity of the league. The length of the accord is unprecedented in the recent history of sports labor, and now pro basketball presumably can look forward to at least six years of peace.
The league moved closer to true free agency for players by modifying the right of first refusal, which gives a team with a man who has played out his option the opportunity to match the salary offered by another club. From now on that right will not apply to a veteran who has played out his second contract; for now a veteran is defined as a player with seven years' service, but that figure becomes five years in 1988-89 and four years in 1993-94. The salary cap, which had also restricted free agency, will probably be gradually increased so that by 1993 the average salary of an NBA player is expected to reach $900,000—it is now $510,000. The college draft will be cut from seven rounds to three this year, and to two rounds thereafter. In addition, the two sides agreed in principle to establish a pension program for old-timers who retired before 1965 (SCORECARD, May 2).
"Both sides made compromises," said Stern. "It's better to make peace than war so the league can grow."
As for pro football's continuing labor dispute, the NFL Players Association claimed victory last week when the National Labor Relations Board ( NLRB) 1) dismissed a complaint by the owners that the players had failed to bargain in good faith and 2) declared that an "impasse" had been reached in the talks. The latter was a key finding, because on Jan. 29 U.S. District Judge David Doty, who is presiding over an antitrust suit brought by the union against the league, had ruled that the owners could continue imposing free-agency restrictions until a collective bargaining impasse was reached. In the wake of the NLRB ruling, Doty could issue a preliminary injunction requested by the union allowing some 500 players to become free agents. Or he could let the free-agency issue be decided as part of the antitrust suit, which might take years.
"It was a slam dunk," said Gene Upshaw, executive director of the union, of the NLRB ruling.
"If that's what he is going to call a slam dunk, he's got an awful lot more minutes to play," responded John Jones, spokesman for the NFL Management Council.
Rather than borrowing a metaphor from basketball, the two sides should take a hint from the NBA's successful contract negotiations.
UNDER THE HAMMER
Ordinarily, softball is not a hazardous undertaking. But a recent women's game between the visiting University of Massachusetts and Boston College was given an unexpected element of danger when hammers thrown by competitors in the Boston College Relays started landing in the outfield. "I've never in my life had an experience like that," said Massachusetts coach Elaine Sortino. "The umpires told us to advise our outfielders that when they [the umpires] yelled 'Heads up!' the outfielders were to start running toward home plate."