In a country with historically low unionization rates, the three best known, most recognizable union leaders are arguably the ones that lead professional sports stars into collective bargaining battle. The faces of Major League Baseball union chief Donald Fehr, NFLPA leader Gene Upshaw and NBA Players Association President Billy Hunter are well known to those who watch ESPN and C-Span alike. Of the three, Hunter is least well known. Here is a man with a strong progressive spine and a background that has taken him from working alongside Huey Newton to sitting across the table from the most formidable commissioner in sports, David Stern.
Sports unions have set an example because they have taken steps forward whereas the rest of labor has been going backwards, yet people still view it as “millionaires vs. billionaires” as if athletes aren’t real workers. What do you have to say to that?
That’s just not true. Athletes are entertainers and so they’re in a position where they generate and are paid a lot more money. But I think that there’s a parallel between what they earn based upon what they generate, just like anyone who might be working for General Motors or anywhere else. If you look at athletes at the end of their careers a lot of them are physically broken up. Not every athlete is successful to the point where he generates or earns millions of dollars. They have the same kind of trials and tribulations that everybody else has.
The jobs that they hold are extremely stressful because as you can see their performance will dictate how well a given franchise does, thereby either creating or relieving pressure upon them by the individuals who pay them. So I think what people have to do is have the ability–if they get the opportunity–to come inside and see some of the issues and problems that we deal with everyday. You know, professional athletes are pretty high-strung. They’re extremely sensitive. So there’s a lot of work and energy that goes into helping them maintain their physical and mental acumen to allow them to perform at the highest level.
You have a contract negotiation with the NBA coming up in 2011. Are there specific issues or points of conflict that you foresee?
Right now I think that probably the biggest issue is going to be one of compensation. The attitude among the owners is that the players earn too much. It’s ironic, because that’s always been the argument: that the players earn too much. And as you know, in our game, there’s always been all kinds of restrictions and taxes and sanctions that imposed upon teams that overspend. Ironically, in 2005, when we struck the last deal, in exchange for some economic concessions, we legally gave them a lot of other concessions that they were looking for in terms of age and image, the dress code, et cetera, because Commissioner Stern felt that the deal we struck was economically a great deal not only for the owners but the players as well.
A lot of people saw the image debate of 2005 as being a broadside against hip-hop culture, being code for being young, black and from the inner city. What was your take?
I don’t refute any of that. I am sensitive to all of that and I think that some of that is in the mix. So I don’t think it’s something we need to run away from. You know a lot of people when you raise those issues, hackles go up on the backs. I can deal with that. I know from speaking to some of our ballplayers that they felt that way. But by the same token we are in business and I think it’s imperative as much as possible for the players to be role models.