Negotiation & Arbitration Take Center Court: Highlighting The New York Times’ Coverage of the N.B.A. Salary Cap

 Thomas Donadio

J.D. Candidate, Moritz College of Law 2020

 

On June 29, 2019, the N.B.A. issued a concise statement providing its 2019-20 season salary cap. This salary cap became effective on July 1, 2019.[1] The N.B.A.’s brief message stands in sharp contrast to the convoluted, exception-riddled 650-page collective bargaining agreement which defines the terms of the salary cap.[2] Sopan Deb, a cultural reporter for The New York Times, provides insight to the cap, the surrounding rules, and the league’s ensuing enforcement challenge.[3]

The N.B.A. salary cap is a product of a collective bargaining agreement entered into by the league and players’ association in 2017.[4] In theory, the salary cap promotes competitive fairness by preventing the wealthiest teams from hoarding the most talented players.[5] A panel of ten individuals, known collectively as the “cap group”, play a critical role in facilitating an agreement which Deb describes as “arguably the most complex in professional sports.”[6] The group is charged with enforcing the cap and advising teams on how best to navigate the agreement’s complicated requirements.[7] Furthermore, each trade in the N.B.A. requires a conference between the two teams and the cap group.[8] Unsurprisingly, certain team officials’ goals are to circumvent the restrictions and acquire their desired players.[9] The cap group must strike a careful balance in its operations between holding teams accountable without causing conflict between the league and the players’ union.[10] When players disagree with the cap group’s interpretation of the agreement, an arbitration process kicks in.[11] For example, a debate ensued between the league and players’ union over “Bird Rights” or the ability to exceed the salary cap and offer a raise to a player who has been on the team for three years.[12] Players retain these rights when they are traded.[13] In arbitration, the players’ union successfully argued that this exception should also apply to players placed on waiver, where any team may submit a claim for that player’s contract.[14] Consequently, in this multi-billion-dollar industry[15], a team of ten makes the most influential plays.

[1] NBA Salary Cap set at $109.14 Million, NBA (June 29, 2019, 8:48 PM ET), https://www.nba.com/article/2019/06/29/nba-salary-cap-2019-20-season-set-10914-million.

[2] Sopan Deb, Do You Understand the N.B.A. Salary Cap? Imagine Enforcing It, The N.Y. Times (Aug. 20, 2019),  https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/20/sports/basketball/nba-salary-cap.html.

[3]Deb, supra note 2.

[4] Gary Phillips, NBA Sets Salary Cap At $109.14 Million For 2019-20 Campaign, Forbes (June 30, 2019, 9:54 AM), https://www.forbes.com/sites/garyphillips/2019/06/30/nba-sets-salary-cap-at-10914-million-for-2019-20-campaign/#7b8aec4c7a37.

[5] What is a Salary Cap in Sports? Online Sports Mgmt. Kansas Univ., (last accessed Sept. 12, 2019), https://onlinesportmanagement.ku.edu/community/salary-caps-in-sports.

[6] Deb, supra note 2.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Brad Adgate, Why The 2017-18 Season Was Great for The NBA, Forbes (Apr. 25, 2018), https://www.forbes.com/sites/bradadgate/2018/04/25/the-2017-18-season-was-great-for-the-nba/#3f817b332ecb.