Owners want to keep $160M, union says

NEW YORK -- It is not just about future money. It's about past money, too.

The union for NBA players spoke out Wednesday about how livid they are that owners are not only asking for $7 to $8 billion in concessions in a proposed new collective bargaining agreement, but also are asking players to give back $160 million that was withheld from their paychecks last season.

The $160 million was collected under the so-called "escrow tax" system to ensure that players received no more than 57 percent of basketball-related income. That money is scheduled to be disbursed to players in August.

"To me, it speaks to the arrogance they have in approaching us," union president Derek Fisher said. "Trust and loyalty pretty much go out the window when it comes to business.

"We haven't been partners in this venture from day one. We've been employees, the talent that has grown the game. It's difficult to be partners in recovery when we haven't been partners in generating those losses."

Commissioner David Stern issued a statement later Wednesday.

"Players have
benefited from the current system more than the teams," Stern said. "For them it has
been a much better partnership. We are sorry that the players' union feels
that way since it doesn't seem designed to get us to the agreement that is
so important to the teams, and we had hoped, the players."

In calling the meeting Wednesday on the eve of a meeting of player representatives from all 30 teams, the union sought to gain some measure of control over the public discourse surrounding the negotiations.

Owners made a substantial move off their previous financial position Tuesday in a three-hour bargaining session, offering a guaranteed $2 billion per year in salaries over the life of a 10-year agreement. But the union Wednesday sought to hammer home the point that players are already earning $2.17 billion in salary and benefits under the current system, and they would not surpass that figure under the owners' proposed terms until the 10th year of the proposed 10-year deal.

They also questioned why the owners have not been forthcoming on details of a revenue sharing plan for local television revenues, saying it was fundamentally at odds with the "partnership" ethic the sides have tried to cultivate.

Collective bargaining negotiations will resume Friday in New York, and owners will meet Tuesday in Dallas and could vote to authorize a lockout if a new labor agreement is not reached to replace the one expiring June 30.

Players made a half-billion dollar concession in Tuesday's meeting in proposing a five-year agreement that would keep the current salary cap system but would reduce their share of basketball-related income from 57 percent to 54.6 percent in the first several years of a new labor deal.

According to the union, if the players agreed to the owners' request to return the $160 million in escrow funds, it would have the effect of retroactively reducing their share of basketball-related income for the 2010-11 season from 57 percent to 52.8 percent.

"If we were inclined to do that deal, we would be giving up $8.2 billion over 10 years," union director Billy Hunter said, adding that he has told team owners in the past that the only way the players would agree to a hard salary cap would be if they were guaranteed 60 to 65 percent of basketball-related income. It was the first time Hunter publicly disclosed that he would accept a "hard" cap under any terms.

In one of his bolder comments, Hunter also declared that when Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert promised his fans their team would win a championship before the Miami Heat would, he said those words with the underlying motivation that the rules of the new collective bargaining agreement would preclude the Heat from keeping their core of three superstars together.

"Gilbert's ambition, when speaking post-LeBron, was to split the Heat up in the new system," Hunter said.

In total, the union's actions Wednesday were meant to placate the growing notion that a settlement is near, while also calling attention to the size of the financial concessions the owners are seeking.

"A lot of players are calling thinking we've gotten beyond the flex-cap issue, and that's just not true," Fisher said, adding that when the sides' respective positions are spelled out in greater detail to players, the tone of the conversations shift.

"Guys are in total disbelief and are asking 'Why are we even meeting?'" Fisher said.

Hunter added that the sides still have a litany of issues still to discuss, and it could take a month or more to resolve those differences. He and Fisher also said the owners are seeking a 10-year deal in order to reap windfall profits after a new television rights deal is negotiated following the 2015-16 season.

"It makes no sense to do a 10-year deal. We haven't signed off on that. It doesn't make sense on any level," Fisher said.