Agents issue warning letter to clients

Concerned that leaders of the NBA players union continue to negotiate with owners about a new collective bargaining agreement that contains massive concessions by only the players, six of the most powerful player agencies jointly composed a warning letter over the weekend and sent it Monday to their clients, sources say.

The letter advises the players not to ratify any deal that includes a reduction in basketball-related income beyond the 57 percent or any other systematic changes from the last collective bargaining agreement, which expired July 1.

The owners have held firm to chopping the players' share of BRI from 57 to 46 percent since negotiations began, union director Billy Hunter acknowledged after lengthy talks over the weekend were largely fruitless.

Sources say the letter, a copy of which was obtained from a player who received it, was jointly composed by Arn Tellem of Wasserman Media Group; Bill Duffy of BDA Sports; Dan Fegan of Lagardere Unlimited; Jeff Schwartz of Excel Sports Management; Leon Rose and Henry Thomas of Creative Artists Agency; and Mark Bartelstein of Priority Sports and Entertainment.

The same group of agents has strongly suggested that the union pursue decertification in light of the owners' refusal to budge from demands for "givebacks" as well as severe restrictions on future earnings, which the agents consider unfounded with the league setting a record for overall revenue last season and "skyrocketing television ratings," "record attendance" and "ever increasing television rights deals" over the last six seasons.

Union president and Lakers guard Derek Fisher sent a letter in mid-September to a limited group of players after reports of the agents' push for decertification surfaced. He criticized the agents for not airing their concerns with him and questioned "their motives."

The letter sent Monday by the agents does not mention decertification, nor does it suggest that their clients break from the union. It simply -- but pointedly -- advises them to request ample time to review any labor deal the union might present for ratification and to demand that the entire union membership be given the chance to vote on it.

Fisher later Monday sent a letter to players in response to the agents' letter.

"Your agents represent you, there's a loyalty there and I can appreciate that," Fisher wrote. "I'll never question it, the work they do for you, or the decisions you and they make together. The letter however includes misinformation and unsupported theories.

"As a player myself, I know that each player should read everything we can. My emails, media reports, letters from their representation, to form an opinion on the situation. Educate yourself, ask questions, do it all. But not all of what you read is fact, you know this, I know this.

"One issue I need to again be very clear on ... nothing can be accepted without a vote by the players. If and when there is a proposal that we feel is in the best interests of us as players, each of you WILL have the opportunity to vote in person. It's in the union bylaws, it's not up for negotiation. You will have the opportunity to see the full proposal before you agree, you will be able to challenge it, question it, anything you feel appropriate in order to know that this is the best deal for you and your fellow players."

When the union and owners struck a deal to end the lockout that delayed the start of the league's 1998-99 season, players were given barely more than 24 hours to review the owners' proposal and find their way to New York, where they had to be present to have their vote count in a show-of-hands format rather than by secret ballot, sources say. A total of 184 votes were recorded -- the deal was ratified 179-5 -- but that represented less than half the players eligible to vote.

The league circumvented the union and presented their proposal directly to the players for ratification, but did so with the threat that short of immediate approval, the entire season would be cancelled and the following season replacement players would be used instead.

The letter estimates that the owners' proposed combination of a reduced cut of basketball-related revenue, a 10-percent "claw back" on existing contracts and the 8 percent of each contract held in escrow and forfeited unless the players are paid less than their BRI cut means "each player will likely return 15 percent to 20 percent of his salary to owners at the end of each season."

It outlines that a reduction of the BRI from 57 to merely 52 percent would amount to a refund by each player of $500,000 to the owners.

The agents also suggest to their clients in the letter that they demand to see the complete financial records of the owners over the past six seasons -- the period covered by the last labor pact, which was essentially an extension of the one negotiated in 1999 -- including their "related entities (such as regional sports networks and arenas)."

How the letter impacts negotiations or the timeline on a deal being struck remains to be seen. But one of the closing statements, written in bold italics, is: "Remember, it is not about when or how fast a deal is reached, it is about taking the time to secure the best deal."

Ric Bucher is a senior NBA writer for ESPN The Magazine.