SLAM: It doesn’t make sense. Agents are very influential in the lives of their players. Why wouldn’t the union want to keep them up to speed on everything?
DF: Absolutely they are. Other than the players on the executive committee, if you asked 95 percent of the players in the League, maybe 98 percent: Who do you trust more? Your own agent, that you picked to manage your life and your contract, or the union? They don’t even know the union very well. It’s not a knock on the union. It’s just a fact of life that players spend dramatically more time with their individual agent, so at the end of the day, I would hope Evan Turner, Greg Monroe, Jeff Green would say to me, ‘What do you think of the union’s proposal? You’re my adviser.’ I told Billy on the first day he got the job that this was a political process. You need to take the top 10 agents, put them in a room and let them box each other’s ears in over what is a good deal for the players, come out with a consensus and everyone be unified and go to the players and say this is what we need to get. I think it’s happening a little bit more than it did in 1998. If you see how baseball does it, it’s light years different. That’s one of Stern’s many elements of genius. The owners are much more iconoclastic than the players. These are billionaires, captains of industry. You’ve got Ted Leonsis, Mark Cuban, Paul Allen, Stan Kroenke, James Dolan. These guys are very individualistic people and his job is to mold a consensus. He has 30 owners. You don’t need 30 agents to form a consensus. If you took Arn Tellem and Bill Duffy, that’s 40 percent of the NBA with two guys. Those guys need to be on the team. I don’t blame Billy for that because he didn’t create that environment, he inherited it from his predecessors. But you have to change it.
SLAM: Where do you see this going? Will there be a lockout?
DF: I’ve said for the last year, it’s beyond my imagination that both parties can be dumb enough in the current economic climate with unemployment at 20 percent, more Americans under the poverty line than anytime during the last 60 years, that they’re going to complain that players making an average salary of $5.4 million aren’t compensated enough or that we should be crying for owners losing $10-20 million, who are billionaires. People can’t pay their mortgages, can’t keep their houses. I’ve told both sides in the strongest way that the collective bargaining negotiation is about creating rules that make the game better. If the game is better, both sides will prosper. In the court of public opinion, there is zero sympathy for fat cat players who want to make more money or fat cat owners who are losing money because they’re doing the kind of dumb things they did this summer. No sympathy at all.
SLAM: When I attended the union press conference at All-Star break in Dallas, Billy Hunter had mentioned that the owners were trying to limit everything in their first proposal including changes to the max—
DF: Whose fault is that? The union needs to go to bat for the max players. That’s who brings in the gate. There’s a growing conflict that really didn’t exist to the same level 20 years ago. There is a conflict between the interests of guys like Kobe and LeBron and the interest of the guy who wants to make the midlevel exemption. When the midlevel exemption came out, it was initiated at $2.2 million. Now it’s at $7 million. The stakes are a lot better. Now where has that excess money come out of? It’s come out of the max.
SLAM: In the same presser, Billy also said that the owners wanted to get rid of the midlevel exemption, all exemptions actually, and the union clearly doesn’t agree.
DF: They want to change the percentage of revenues that players receive. And I think they want to get rid of the midlevel exemption. To me, depending on what the package is, you need to address the distribution of revenue amongst the players in a way that reflects—this isn’t communism, it’s capitalism. The guys who earn it should get paid. They shouldn’t be subsidies to guys that don’t deserve it. I will go back to what you said about Donnie Nelson. I would say most people would agree with that. So why would you want to give a person that doesn’t have the same level of motivation an incentive to not play hard? If you know that they’re not incentivized by nature, if they’re DNA is getting a little security and they’re not going to work as hard, why would you want to incentivize a person not to work as hard? That is the whole purpose of compensation structure, to incentivize people to do what you want them to do. If you want them to play hard, the superstars don’t need financial security. They want to do it for their place in the sun. Players that don’t have that talent and drive, need to be incentivized to play hard. I think you have to treat those two classes of players differently.
SLAM: Don’t you think most agents would fight what you’re talking about?
DF: Agents that have the top players should be fighting for the top players and agents that don’t have the top players should be fighting for their guys. That’s why at the end of the day, if you can’t get everyone in the room to come to a consensus, you will have a conflict of interest. Do you think that months after signing $100 million deals that LeBron, DWade, Chris Bosh, Amar’e Stoudemire, Joe Johnson are going to be excited about getting locked out and losing $20 million so that a guy on their team who is probably worth $2 million can make $4 million?
SLAM: Probably not. [Laughs]