Pro Basketball Needs a Bill of Rights

[The previous post laid out the reasons that Bob Cousy organized the NBA Players’ Association in 1954. The post ended with NBA president Maurice Podoloff ignoring Cousy’s request for a meeting to roll out for him the newfangled union. Podoloff’s stall tactics to avoid recognizing the union continued well over a year, forcing Cousy and his union brothers to turn up the heat. Among their attempts to make Podoloff sweat is this article titled, ”Pro Basketball Needs a Bill of Rights.” This historic article, which ran in Sport Magazine in April 1956, didn’t bring Podoloff or his NBA bosses to their knees. But the article certainly helped to publicize the union’s cause with fans. In fact, a year later on April 18, 1957, Cousy finally got his wish: the NBA Board of Governors voted to meet annually with representatives of the Players’ Association and take ”action on matters of mutual benefit to the team owners and players.” As Cousy told writer Al Hirshberg, “Happy! I was almost hysterical!”  

Podoloff dashed off a letter to Cousy recounting the actions taken by the Board of Governor at the April 1957 meeting regarding the Players’ Association’s first wish list. “Every bit of the smoldering resentment I’d ever felt against Podoloff evaporated when I saw his signature on that document,” recalled Cousy. “From that time on, I was at peace with the world and the National Basketball Association.”] 

No one has a bigger stake in the future of the National Basketball Association than the players. The owners have money tied up in their teams, but they have other interests, too. Basketball is only a sideline for some of them. But for us, it’s a livelihood. If the NBA folded, more than 80 athletes would be thrown out of work. We have to do all we can to see that the league thrives. Whatever hurts basketball, hurts us; what helps it, helps us. We are interested, beyond everything else, in the betterment of professional basketball in general and the NBA in particular. That’s why we formed the NBA Players’ Association. 

When we think in terms of a basketball players bill of rights, we think of it only in the sense that what we want is for the benefit of everyone involved, owners as well as players. We’re not a red-eyed union, demanding more pay for less work and threatening to walk out if we don’t get it either. On the other hand, we don’t want anything to happen that will hurt our business, which is basketball. We intend to protect what we have, and to see that improvements are made as we go along. 

Some of those improvements are so urgently needed that we have already brought them to the league’s attention. However, the NBA is still in its infancy. For that reason, we don’t want to discourage the owners with too many demands. Baseball players, with big money and big business involved, as well as a background of a good many years of successful operation, can reasonably demand certain benefits that are beyond our present scope. Perhaps someday, we’ll reach that point. In the meantime, we have to learn to walk before we try to run toward our own bill of rights.

Therefore, our current demands were not exorbitant. As a matter of fact, they were so meager that they could hardly be referred to as demands at all. They were—and are—nothing more than an appeal for common sense and fairness. In some cases, they don’t even concern player-owner relations, but the welfare of the league as a whole. And we haven’t made a single reference to, much less any demands about, such important points as minimum salaries, schedule adjustments, or pension plans. To the best of my knowledge, since I never see league books, the average salary in the NBA is about $6,500. There are some players—or so I have been told—who make less than $5,000 a season. But now, we feel, is not the time to seek corrective legislation on league salaries. It is the same with the schedule. There are times during the season when a club must play five games in six days—something many players complain about—and then lay off for a week. But we understand the problems that have created such an unbalanced schedule. The NBA does not yet have sufficient power and authority to get the better dates from the arena management, which still give preference to hockey, ice shows, the circus, etc. It’s logical, therefore, for us to want to strengthen the league first. Once we do that—and it is not so far off—the league could demand and get the dates it wants, perhaps even without the players’ help. As to the pension plan, of course we would like to set up a program that would take care of the player when his active days in the NBA are over. But this, too, belongs to the future. For now, we are concerned with the immediate needs of the players and the improvement of the league.  

Erratic schedule has players on run one day, waiting the next.

The league’s reaction to our demands was at first ice cold. Maurice Podoloff, president of the NBA, has been opposed to our association. Until just recently, he ignored us altogether. I have spoken to him face-to-face and written him, letting him know the points we wanted to make. At first, he paid no attention. Lately, though, he has begun to show more interest, and we hope that eventually our relations with the league president will be satisfactory to both parties. 

Naturally, we didn’t expect either the owners or the president to jump when we formed our players’ group. As such, we do represent labor as opposed to capital. But the former battle lines between the two have long since been resolved, and here in America, labor and capital are no longer unfriendly. There’s no reason why the same situation shouldn’t exist in the NBA. 

Our membership includes every man in the league with the exception of the players on the Fort Wayne Pistons. This is a situation over which we have no control, although I hope someday that Fred Zollner, who owns the club, will take a more realistic attitude. Zollner is categorically against all unions. He will not tolerate them either in his plant or on his ballclub. Frankly, I don’t know what would happen if any of the boys on the Fort Wayne club joined the Players’ Association, any more than I know what would happen if the whole team joined. I guess they feel that, in that event, Zollner would disband the club. Certainly, I can sympathize with them, But I can’t condone Zollner’s position. He is, as of now, adamant in his refusal to recognize us. Unions have been accepted by most of the great corporations of America, but not by Fred Zollner.

“I have never had a union in my shops, and I will have no union on my ballclub,” he told me some time ago. “If any of my people have a grievance, they know they can tell me about it, and we’ll get it unraveled. And the same thing holds true of my basketball team. Those boys know how much I like them, and that I’ll always be sympathetic to their problems. They don’t need a union, and they know it.”

Because of Zollner’s attitude, and because we feel it is not in the best interests of the NBA to make an issue of it at this time, we haven’t mentioned the Fort Wayne situation in any of our demands. This is a prime example of the sort of problem we’re up against. Where other unions might take a strike vote over something like that, we can’t touch it—not now. 

But, one thing we are sure about—we can get along without the support of the Piston players. Some basketball people have said that our group can never work without Fort Wayne joining us. We don’t agree. After all, not all of labor is organized, yet the unions certainly can negotiate and bargain successfully. If seven of our teams decide to fight for a right, it just doesn’t seem likely that the inactivity—not necessarily the opposition, mind you—of the eighth team would defeat us. 

There are eight clubs in the NBA—the Boston Celtics, the New York Knickerbockers, the Philadelphia Warriors, the Syracuse Nationals, the Rochester Royals, the Fort Wayne Pistons, the St. Louis Hawks, and the Minneapolis Lakers. A majority of the owners have commented favorably about our group. They have problems, of course, but they know that we have problems, too.

Arriving late, Slater Martin (right) has a bite before game.

We have made five basic demands. I submitted them in writing to the president of the league last November, although he knew long before then what we wanted. One of the demands had been hanging fire for a year, and was finally settled. Another may be straightened out in the near future, perhaps before this article is published. The rest are in contention. Here are the five:

  1. Payment of salaries to the members of the Baltimore club, which folded in November of 1954. 
  2. Establishment of a 20-game limit on exhibition games, after which the players should share in the profits. 
  3. Abolition of the so called “whispering fine.”
  4. Payment of $25 expenses for public appearances other than on radio or television or at certain charitable functions. 
  5. Establishment of an impartial board of arbitration to settle extreme player-owner disputes. 

The Baltimore situation was straightened out last November, but it should have been taken care of long before that. The Bullets folded too early to meet their salary obligations and too late for the majority of the boys to make any connections. Of the 10 men on the team, only four found basketball jobs for themselves. Bob Houbregs made a trip with our club, the Celtics, then was signed by Fort Wayne. Frank Selvy went to the Milwaukee (now St. Louis) Hawks. Connie Simmons signed with Syracuse. Paul Hoffman went to Philadelphia. The other six were left stranded. 

We took it as a matter of course that the league would pay off these men when the Baltimore people failed to. But the weeks and months passed by, and nothing happened. When the Players’ Association was formed in January of 1955, we made the payment of these salaries our first order of business.

I went to Mr. Podoloff and asked him to see that the right thing was done by these Baltimore players. He put me off. Each time I approached him on the subject, he did the same thing. Eventually, he told me to submit the grievance to him in writing. I did so, incorporating it with our other demands last November. The former Baltimore players were finally paid from the league treasury a few weeks later. By that time, everyone involved had long since stabilized his own affairs. The money was welcome, of course, but the time the men needed it most was when the club blew up. It was something that should have been taken care of automatically and swiftly. 

Our demand for a 20-game limit on exhibitions is not unreasonable. With a season of 72 regularly scheduled games, 20 exhibitions plus playoffs means a total of over 100 games in a six-month period. Believe me, under the pressure of NBA play, that’s plenty. 

Some clubs don’t need any league regulations to confine themselves to 20 or less exhibition games. Our team, the Celtics, for example, had 18 this year, and in my time, at least, we’ve never played as many as 20. The Knickerbockers played only four exhibitions this year. But some of the other clubs go well beyond 20. We’re against that policy if for no other reason than that it’s bad for the league. A tired player can’t give his best, and the customers who pay the freight are entitled to nothing less. But, if some owners still insist on playing more than 20 exhibition games a year, the players, who do all the work, should be paid extra for it. 

We’ve got to have a different and more practical system of fining players for extreme rule infractions. The “whispering fine” is a crazy device that causes deep resentment among the players. Who suggested it, and for what purpose, is utterly beyond me. All I know is that it must be eliminated, for it is a mean, unhealthy system of referee dictatorship that leaves a player helpless to defend himself. 

When an official calls a technical foul on a man, the result is an automatic fine of $25. The foul is called openly, and everyone knows at once who it is on an why. But someone dreamed up the idea of the “whispering fine” as a means of punishment for an infraction too serious to be ignored but not serious enough to warrant a technical foul call. Actually, a “whispering fine” is a little secret between the official and the player. When the player does something wrong, the official runs over and whispers, “That’ll cost you ten,” or “That’ll cost you 15,” depending on the seriousness of the infraction. There is no shot penalty, so the whole business is on the quiet. Usually, there aren’t even any witnesses, so, in case of dispute, it’s the player’s word against the referee’s. We don’t object to the fine itself, but we do object to the means of calling it. At the very least, it should be brought into the open, so everyone knows about it. 

Speaking of officials, I’d like to point out here that, since they have so much effect on the outcome of a basketball game, great care should be taken in choosing them. Officials are important in any sport, but they’re doubly so in basketball. A foul call can mean a ball game and, in fact, every official can hold the outcome in the palm of his hand. For that reason, I firmly believe that the NBA, in selecting an official, should put his character, background, and integrity beyond his ability to officiate or even his knowledge of basketball. It is to our interest as players, as well as in the public interest, that we have the highest caliber of men officiating in our league.  

Our demand of $25 expenses for specific types of public appearance is so ridiculously small that there should be no argument about it. Some baseball players insist upon—and get—considerably more than that, even when they go on radio or television programs. But the NBA has to be promoted, and we’re willing to do our share. None of us has ever refused to appear on radio or television for nothing, because we’re all interested in the betterment of the league. We are perfectly willing, too, to appear at charitable functions without compensation. But, when we’re asked to supply entertainment at private parties or before clubs which can well afford to pay for their entertainment, we feel that we should get at least a nominal fee for our time and expenses. And $25, by all standards in other pro sports, is certainly nominal. 

The fifth clause in our bill of rights, as submitted last November, is the most important of all, I believe. An impartial arbitration board would protect owners as well as players, and we feel that such a board is absolutely essential, particularly in view of the league regulations regarding the signing of contracts. A club cannot cut a player more than 25 percent below his previous year’s salary, and must submit a new contract by October 1. Failure to do so automatically makes the player a free agent. This is a fair arrangement when properly adhered to, but, if abused, it can cause serious hardship to either player or owner, depending upon who is doing the abusing. For example, a club can keep a player on the shelf by sending him a contract calling for the maximum cut by October 1. The owner knows the player won’t accept the salary slash and since the contract beats the deadline, the owner doesn’t have to make him a free agent. As a result, the player can be made to sit home with the choice of signing an impossible contract or retiring from basketball. We had a case last year, in which a competent man sat around and twiddled his thumbs for weeks. The owner finally peddled him to another club, but the delay cost him salary money that went into four figures. 

After the game, Lakers leave town again, grab sleep where they can.

On the other hand , the owner can be hurt, too. He has rights only to certain newcomers every year, and if he can’t come to terms with one, he’s likely to lose the man altogether. Just this year, a rookie returned a contract with a salary demand that was too high compared with what first-year NBA men are usually paid. The owner refused to consider it. The player sat tight, but he didn’t have a chance. He finally told me the story and asked me what he should do. I advised him either to sign at the owner’s terms or forget basketball. He signed, and is now playing in the NBA. 

It is possible that our demand for an arbitration board will be granted in the near future, since the league appears to realize the need for one as much as the players do. If things work out as I hope they will, we might have such a board by the time this article is in print. 

Since I have what may be the best contract in the league, and since I have very little to gain, I’ve often been asked why I bothered to form the Players’ Association. The answer would be fairly obvious to any right-thinking person. I love basketball, I want to see it prosper, and I feel a strong obligation to the game. It has been very good to me. 

In order for the NBA players’ group to survive, it was necessary for me to take a major part in its formation and an active part in its work. Pro basketball has had few big names and none had previously shown any inclination to form a players’ group. 

I hope we will never have to resort to extreme measures to get what we feel is rightfully ours. For that reason, I was distressed when a strike rumor broke out of New York last December. According to the story, the Celtics were prepared to refuse to take the floor in a regularly scheduled game. I spent most of one night denying the story to newspaper men calling me from all the cities in the league. There was no truth to the story. I didn’t ask for a strike vote, and the Celtics didn’t take one. 

However, at the time we submitted our demands to the president of the league last November, I did canvas the other player representatives regarding their thoughts on the subject of taking a general strike vote, in the event we should ever feel that one was necessary. This was a hypothetical question, and the answers were nothing more than the personal opinions of the player representatives. 

The rumor regarding the Celtics was absurd on the face of it, since one club could gain nothing by a strike. Our strength lies only in numbers. If one club were to go out on strike, all—except for the Pistons—would go out. Under any conditions, there would never be a player strike until the league had been given plenty of advance notice. Even then, a strike vote would be a last resort. 

Mr. Podoloff, when he heard the rumor (at a basketball writers’ luncheon in New York), quickly proclaimed that any player who sat down would never play in the NBA again. It was an unfair and unwise remark to make, and it would have been equally irresponsible if he had carried out the threat. First of all, he would have had to suspend some 70 players, which wouldn’t have left him much. Then, his hasty remarks indicated no regard for the right to strike. A sit-down strike, after all, is not illegal. What Mr. Podoloff’s reaction did indicate was a dictatorial attitude on his part.

I hope there never is a player strike in the NBA , and I will do all I can to avoid one. But we’re asking for little enough, and we intend to get that little by any legitimate means at our command.  

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