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Sunday, November 28, 2004

Suspensions Mobilize NBA Players Union

By Greg Sandoval
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 28, 2004

The swift manner with which the NBA meted out punishment to Ron Artest and other members of the Indiana Pacers in the wake of the brawl last week in Auburn Hills, Mich., has rankled many in the NBA Players Association at a time when the league and its players' union are entering a crucial phase of labor talks.

NBA Commissioner David Stern suspended Artest for the final 73 games of the season, a move that will also cost Artest more than $5 million in salary. In addition, Stern suspended fellow Pacers Stephen Jackson (30 games) and Jermaine O'Neal (25 games).

Under NBA rules, Stern has not only the authority to hand out suspensions but also the final say on appeals. Billy Hunter, the players' union's executive director, will crisscross the country to tell the more than 400 union members that Stern's authority must be scaled back.

"If you don't challenge this apparatus now, what happened to Ron Artest can happen to anyone," Hunter said in a phone interview this week. "This is a grave concern of mine and [the players]. A bunch of them have already told me 'Billy, you can't let these suspensions stand.' "

Said Washington Wizards forward Etan Thomas, the team's player representative: "What good does it do you to file an appeal to the guy who set the punishment? Is he going to admit he was wrong? You need someone independent to hear the appeals."

The issue takes on greater importance with labor negotiations intensifying. The existing collective bargaining agreement expires at the end of this season.

Stern "has now made this a big issue at the labor negotiations," said a person close to the players' union. "He can do anything he wants with that power. The union is going to want a change."

Stern has clearly indicated that the league wants stricter standards for player conduct.

At the news conference to announce the suspensions last week, Stern said, "Although we didn't ask to be at the epicenter of this discussion, we now are going to be in discussion about what we're going to tolerate with respect to fan behavior, what we're going to tolerate with respect to player behavior."

The replays have been shown repeatedly since the melee at the end of the Detroit Pistons-Indiana Pacers game on Nov. 19. In one of the ugliest incidents ever in American sports, Artest and Jackson charged into the stands to exchange blows with fans, some of whom had thrown objects at the players, including a cup that struck Artest in the face. Fighting continued on the arena floor and at the tunnel exit.

At least nine people suffered minor injuries; two have filed lawsuits. Auburn Hills police said that charges against fans and athletes are "forthcoming."

Stern was praised by much of the public -- and some of the league's corporate backers -- for coming down hard on the players involved. Some fans have called on the commissioner to continue cleaning up the league's "thug" image.

Hunter expects the issue of discipline to be aired during negotiations, but stopped short of calling it a deal-breaker. He acknowledged that the league locked out the players at the conclusion of the last labor talks in 1997 and notes a provision in the league's television contracts that allows the NBA to field teams staffed by replacement players in the event of a work stoppage.

"The reality is that we have 450 of the best basketball players in the world. Our players are the game," Hunter said. "The owners certainly have [the lockout provision] in their arsenal. But if they resorted to using replacement players . . . the game would die."

Hunter contends that whipping up public opinion against the players is a dangerous gambit. While Stern may appease fans and corporate partners by cracking down on players, the suspensions further undermine the players' image, according to Hunter.

"It's a two-edged sword," Hunter said. "The league has to be concerned about damaging the product. The players are being vilified. Even if David is not doing it directly, his suspensions are seeding negative stereotypes of basketball players. David is a sophisticated man. He knows he needs the public to accept the players, but the underlying message he is sending -- which is false -- is that the athletes are overpaid, spoiled, self-indulgent guys."

NBA executives did not respond to repeated requests for interviews.

Hunter has filed an appeal on behalf of Artest, O'Neal and Jackson, asking that the appeal be heard by arbitrator Roger Kaplan. Having an outside arbitrator is not unprecedented for the league. In 1997, Latrell Sprewell's case was heard by arbitrator John Feerick after Sprewell was suspended a full season for choking coach P.J. Carlesimo.

The union argued that Stern was authorized to dole out discipline only for on-court behavior. The incident occurred at practice and therefore was considered off the court.

Feerick reduced the punishment to 68 games, and also prevented the Warriors from voiding Sprewell's contract.

Hunter argues that many of the actions by Pacers players occurred in the stands, not on the court, and therefore are not subject to Stern's authority. Should the union's appeal be rejected, Hunter could decide to file a lawsuit.

"The NBA has won in terms of sending a message to the players," Hunter said. "It was obvious that some disciplinary action was needed. Nobody could condone what happened. But by taking the penalties to such an extreme, he was forcing us to act."

[Credit the creativity of Hunter and crew for spinning things against the league and Stern when the brawl could instead have had a negative effect on the upcoming CBA negotiations - FK]

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