NBA Lockout: Owners, Players to Meet With Mediator

In a surprising turn of events, it is being reported that the NBA and NBPA have agreed to meet with a federal mediator next Tuesday in New York.

Owners, Union to Meet With Mediator | ESPN

The independent federal mediator will be a man named George Cohen, who is the director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. Cohen has already been in contact with each side, so he is familiar with the situation and it looks like the negotiation mediation is on an expedited schedule.  Mr. Cohen comes with some high bona fides, as you can read on his bio page. Furthermore, Cohen is quite familiar with the collective bargaining front in pro sports. He was involved in helping the NFL settle its most recent lockout dispute this past summer, he assisted in the 2009 Major League Soccer dispute, and in 1994 he was a labor lawyer who argued on behalf of the MLB union and helped end the strike that wiped out the 1994 world series.

As far as what we can expect from the addition of Mr. Cohen as a federal mediator, predictions are scarce at this hour. We can examine the FMCS web site to glean a few things though:

  • Mediation is not the same as arbitration. In other words, a mediator can help bring two parties to an agreement, but at the end of the day, those parties must consent to the terms. Mediators' opinions are not binding, whereas an arbitrator's decisions are binding.
  • A mediators' job is to better help define the ground rules and set realistic expectations. Also, the mediator can actually propose new solutions, so Cohen is not automatically bound by either the NBA's or NBPA's initial bargaining position. 
  • The mediator controls the tempo and priorities of the negotiation. Hopefully Cohen can prevent further drama, such as executive finger waving or dramatic walk-outs.

David Aldridge was able to provide a little bit more color to the situation, and extracted this very interesting information from union head Billy Hunter:

Hunter also said the union would be willing to discuss reductions in roster size from the current maximum of 15 down to 12 players, or allowing "split" contracts that would allow teams to send players down to the NBA Developmental League during the season if they thought the player needed work he wasn't getting in the NBA.

"We've already indicated that we'd have discussions about the size of the roster," Hunter said.

Perhaps I've completely missed something, but this is the first time that I've heard Hunter put structural roster changes on the table. Certainly with fewer players in the league, the reduction of a BRI split would be felt less by each individual player, even though the overall pie has shrunk. Given that the average NBA salary is a shade under $5 million dollars, the reduction of three roster spots would bump up the average salary by about 20%.

Lastly, if we are to speculate a bit on these new and surprising developments, we must wonder why the NBA would be willing to subject itself to an independent mediator at this juncture. We have been led to believe that the owners have both the leverage and resolve to sit through a protracted lockout, and we always thought the players had to find the endurance to match the owners' supposedly staid position. Could the owners be on shakier ground than previously thought? Is there concern that if this dispute went to either the courts or the National Labor Relations Board, the owners might lose?

Speculation will likely run rampant over the next few days, but at the end of it all, hopefully this development means that each side is rethinking the costs of a lost season and are eager to put the mess behind us all. 

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