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.
I believe that one of the ways that they can be role models is in dress. I don’t think it’s asking too much for individuals who earn the kinds of salaries that NBA players earn to put on a pair of slacks, a sports jacket, a shirt or a tie occasionally. There’s no question that when you get out on the floor it’s about their ability to perform in the game, but I think it’s also because I’m not one who condones when young African-American males are walking down the street with their pants hanging down on their butts. Maybe it’s because I’m old school. But you know, life is about accountability. There are no free lunches, and I don’t think it’s asking too much of a player to look a certain way during the time when he’s representing this league.
Sports unions have been the most effective when they’ve been able to get players to articulate the union’s demands. Are there any efforts to train players to be spokespeople for the union’s cause and are there any players you see fulfilling that role?
We are actually beginning now. We’ve got our annual meeting coming up in the next three weeks. And we’ll have about seventy-something players in attendance. We’re beginning the process; we’re getting these guys ready, preparing them for the next round because three years will pass pretty quickly. When I look at who is currently in place on the horizon, clearly Derek Fisher, our president, I don’t believe there is anyone more articulate and bright and has a more impeccable image and reputation than Derek. Kids like Chris Paul. We’ve got a number of young players that we’re spending time with, that we’re grooming. I don’t want to identify them all now because I don’t want to induce or encourage the league or the teams in any way to try to interfere or intimidate or try to get inside these guys’ heads. But I can assure you that we’ll have sufficient player-spokespersons out there when the time comes.
There have been many players who have spoken out on the war in Iraq, including Etan Thomas and Steve Nash. Could you imagine a political climate where the NBA Players’ Association came out publicly against the war if the players willed it to do so?
I would hope that the time will come when our players have that kind of sophistication, understanding and will to make those kinds of declarations. I think athletes tend–because of the people around them and I see it even today–everybody is so into succeeding, i.e., making money, that people are sometimes reluctant to take a stand because historically the system has punished them. So consequently I think there’s a reluctance on the part of athletes. The other thing is that the athlete’s career is so short, a guy’s got a window of opportunity. In basketball the average tenure or term is four years. So a guy gets beyond four years, then it jumps up to about nine years or so that they’re able to be around. But I think that if you’re a player on the bubble, if you’re a role player, then there’s less likelihood that you’re going to speak out. I think that the guys who really have the obligation to speak out are the guys who are most secure and those are the superstar players, but you’ll find that even with them they’re reluctant to do it. I admire and love Etan Thomas. I think that Etan Thomas is a real man. I really appreciate Steve Nash. I think that he’s phenomenal, as are some of the statements and things that Steve has said, but I think that Steve is confident enough with his own standing within the league and his own ability that he knows that the likelihood of something happening to him is slim to none.
Adonal Foyle is another one, but what happened is that guys like Adonal don’t get the same visibility; his statements don’t get the same visibility. I think Etan got surprisingly a lot of visibility but it was because Etan showed up on those occasions when you had these major movements. He showed up at the peace march in Washington. So he’s always been pretty visible and conspicuous and then the statements that he’s made have been pretty provocative. I heard Etan’s speech over WBAI [radio]. I was listening and when Etan came on I almost cut myself shaving! I immediately e-mailed him, he’ll tell you, I told him how proud I was of him, and I thought it was great. I told him that I was there with him and I told him that whatever he needed to do, I had his back!