After months of negotiation, N.B.A. players have decided to take their concerns to court. Following Thursday’s final attempt at negotiation, locked out players filed suit demanding an end to an alleged illegal boycott of the work force. The suit seeks damages for what the players claim to be “irreparable harm” in preventing them from playing in their very short N.B.A. careers. If granted, damages could add up to the $2 billion players would have made in the 2011-2012 season, which would be tripled under antitrust law. Though the lawsuit is unlikely to resolve for years, the filing is a last-ditch effort by players to pull team owners back to negotiation in order to salvage the 2011 season.

Lawyer David Boies, who successfully represented the N.F.L. during that sport’s work stoppage, made a statement at the headquarters of the National Basketball Players Association: “I hope it is not necessary to litigate all the way. I hope at some point the N.B.A. and the teams will have enough concern for basketball fans that they will resolve these issues and allow the players to start playing.” Ideally for the players the lawsuit will reinvigorate recently failed negotiations, as such lawsuits did for the N.F.L. last spring. Tuesday marked the first missed paycheck period for the players who remain eager to begin the season. The N.B.A. has made its position clear though, and claims that it will not budge from its offer this past week. Commissioner David Stern insisted that players accept the league’s proposal, or have it replaced with a significantly less favorable one. Boies claims that this ultimatum is what has driven players to court, as they saw little other recourse.

The lawsuit was filed in the Northern District of California, thought to be a favorable jurisdiction for players. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are players of varied experience who are thought to represent a wide range of classes within the association. Another lawsuit was filed on Tuesday in Minnesota, also a friendly jurisdiction for the antitrust claims. The Minnesota suit demands a permanent injunction and monetary damages. The plaintiffs of the California lawsuit are not seeking an injunction, which Boies claims is an unlikely outcome that would only delay the matter. With the break down of negotiations, it is thought that more lawsuits will follow these initial two. The N.B.A. had already sued players in August in the Southern District of New York, which is viewed as more favorable to owners. Ultimately the cases will be combined, though there will likely be conflict over which jurisdiction will decide the matter.

In order to succeed in an antitrust lawsuit, the players must demonstrate harm to competition, not merely competitors. The actions of the N.B.A. will have to be shown as causing the type of harm antitrust laws are meant to detect. Even if players were to succeed on such a claim, they must show actual financial harm in order to receive damages. Though similar lawsuits were successful in resolving a lockout for the N.F.L, it is unclear whether the N.B.A. will be responsive to these litigious acts.

– Virginia Maynard Yetter

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5 Responses to Back to the Courts: Basketball Boycott?

  1. Henson Millsap says:

    Interesting that the players would try to claim “irreparable harm” here when there were several alternative leagues in Europe offering them big money (admittedly less than the NBA) to come play. The owners tend to be the ones vilified in sports labor disputes, but here it was abundantly clear that the system wasn’t working and that an adjustment in the revenue split was required for many of the franchises to remain viable.

  2. Andrew Harline says:

    It seems weird to me that a lawsuit can be put on hold. Even if the players antitrust lawsuit was merely a part of their negotiating strategy, I assume that the heart of the player’s claim was that the system harms competition. If there truly exist concerns about a competition-harming system, shouldn’t antitrust laws somehow rear their head? It’s funny how the players don’t like the system when it goes against them, but are happy to “settle” their claim of harmed competition when they themselves are benefiting from the system. I doubt that the FTC or DOJ will do anything on the matter, but I for one would like to see a league where competition off the court is as strong as competition on the court.

  3. Raymond Rufat says:

    Just to add on to this. The lawsuit does not simply disappear because the parties have agreed to end the lockout. The two sides asked the federal judge to put proceedings on hold until Dec. 9. In addition, it appears that the players have agreed to settle their lawsuit against NBA owners. However, before that can happen the players need to re-unionize and the new collective bargaining agreement has to be signed and approved as per the negotiations.

  4. Christina Santana says:

    Great post! It seems as though the players’ litigious acts have been successful in bringing the parties back to the negotiating table. Less than twelve days after negotiations broke down between the owners and the players, both sides have tentatively agreed to a deal. Though the deal has yet to be finalized, the tentative agreement calls for a 50-50 split of profits between the players and owners and an end to the litigation initiated by the players. If the tentative deal becomes finalized, it will be a great Christmas for NBA owners, players and fans alike, as the season is scheduled to begin on Christmas day.

  5. Jeremy Gove says:

    The fact that this arrived at the point of multiple lawsuits being filed is disgraceful. Both sides in these negotiations have used language and maintained positions that are at odds with their stated goals of returning to play. Rather than an adversarial relationship this needed to be looked at as a partnership from both sides. The owners need the players and the players need the owners. At this point fresh voices are needed on both sides to come to an agreement that should have been reached years ago and no games should have been missed. Both sides bear the blame that this situation was arrived at.

    Bill Simmons wrote an excellent column dissecting the NBA labor dispute: http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/7250994/business-vs-personal.