Billy Hunter has to answer to a larger constituency than the NBA players whom he has represented since 1996. His behavior as leader of their union has empowered the wrong people. It has also put a pillow over the face of the frail American labor movement.
When news came out that the NBA Players Association payroll looked like an E-vite list to a Hunter family reunion, the ghost of Marvin Miller coughed up a fur ball. (We imagine that Miller lives on somewhere as a cat, outsmarting and intimidating those larger creatures that indiscriminately chase cars).
Even if Hunter somehow survives a player vote in the coming weeks -- they may vote during All-Star weekend, or it may be delayed -- and even if legal investigations concur with an audit that found no criminal wrongdoing, he has earned contempt. He has also earned the suspension that he received from his job on Friday.
His contract may not have spelled this out, but Hunter had to be pristine. He had to be Caesar's wife. It doesn't matter whether his behavior rose to the level of officially recognized corruption. He had the fates of hundreds of young men in his hands. Allowing for a distinct appearance of impropriety amounted to a fumble.
During the NHL negotiations, the owners tried to persuade the players to boot Don Fehr from the room on the theory that if all the hockey people just got together, without the union boss and his agenda mucking up the works, they could get back on the ice in no time. The players didn't nibble on that apple. They saw the serpent behind it.
Hunter has allowed himself to be dressed up as a sidekick serpent.
What's the rap on trade unionism these days? It's no better than corrupt management; it may be worse. Hunter fed that belief, reinvigorating the image of the union boss as a practitioner of cronyism, a breathing self-enrichment scheme, as the guy who made poor Marlon Brando not be a contender.
Hunter didn't have to feed it much. The belief can survive on crumbs of reality, plus talk-show blather and millions poured into think tanks.
Within pro basketball, his actions ultimately abetted agents who want more control of the union.
At this point, it's hard to argue that they have been completely wrong. But agents are not wired to look out for the well-being of every player in the league. They get a cut of a player's salary, which skews their interests toward superstars, and away from vital employment benefits such as health care, disability insurance, life insurance and continuing education. During a free-agency period, the salary cap distorts who ends up where. Agents with large client rosters face inevitable conflicts of interest.
Say Team A has $15 million in cap room and needs a starting power forward and a strong backup point guard. An agent has two clients who fit those needs perfectly, but on the open market, they could fetch $17 million combined. Does the agent operate equally in both clients' interests? Does he even consider getting maximum cash from Team A for the backup guard, even if that deal would reduce options for the more valuable client?
In a more common scenario, do agents spend so much time placing their stars that by the time they do a deal for a backup, the bulk of the remaining salary-cap cash and best roster spots have been snapped up by small-stable agents who didn't have stars diverting their attention?
The players unions are supposed to monitor such ethics. If Hunter is forced out, bet on the fact that small-scale agents won't play a large role in finding his replacement.
Three of the four major team sports in North America endured lockouts in the last two years, and the players came out losers in each of those fights. The players and agents who want to oust Hunter argue that he fought the NBA owners with less verve than necessary because he wanted to protect his own position more than the players' interests.
At this point, though, it doesn't matter whether Hunter ended up with a deal identical to one that Smith or even Miller, the union banner-carrier for pro sports, could have gotten from the NBA. He weakened the ground below unions in the next rounds of negotiations.
The most recent losses by sports unions had very little to do with the financial status of the league. MLB, which was not more profitable than the NFL, escaped any kind of shutdown as it renegotiated its collective-bargaining agreement. Its players union, after standing its ground 18 years ago, had gained too much clout to be pushed around. The owners didn't even try for huge givebacks. They knew better.
The NHL faced significant financial challenges despite expanding revenue, mostly because the owners and the commissioner flunked advanced accounting plus basic geography and demographics. But the players had to sacrifice, just eight years after making monumental concessions in another lockout.
Did the NBA need all the givebacks it got? Most of that answer rests with Hunter, and we can't know whether he gathered the proper information. We can't know if any of them did. We just know that this union leader sent through his own eight-figure contract without proper approval and hired relatives the way only a family business should.
Hunter's decisions probably have very little effect on the floundering labor movement in general. The average American has come to identify too closely with the ownership society, and less with the working class. There appears to be little support for invigorating and reforming unionization.
But some of us dared to hope for a big comeback, a finessed advance and then some furious rallying. Hunter should have been feeding that dream. Instead, he tossed the ball into the stands.