Monday , Sep , 02 , 2013 Andrew Flint

History of the NBA Labor Union (NBPA).

It is the oldest labor union of all major sports and NBA fans should be aware and proud of its history.

HoopsVibe’s Very Quick Call: It’s easy to only think of NBA players as multi-millionaires, but it was the formation of the union (NBPA) that first gave them basic rights, money, and healthcare. 


I spent this Labor Day like many people with family and friends and was surprised to hear so much vitriolic opposition to the very unions Labor Day was established to remember. Many people appear down on unions these days. They say unions no longer have a place in America. They say unions don’t lead to middle class prosperity. They say unions hinder a free market economy. This made me wonder how public opinion on unions has change so much over the years? Since America took the effort to organize an entire day of remembrance about our labor movement, I decided HoopsVibe should take this Labor Day to examine the labor movement in the NBA.

The NBA Player’s Association was founded in 1954 with Bob Cousy of the Boston Celtics as the first President. It wasn’t recognized by the owners until 1964 when the players threatened to boycott the first televised All-Star Game. People today question why the NBA or any sport needs a union. Yet, prior to the formation of the National Basketball Player’s Association (NBPA) players in the NBA received no pensions, no healthcare, no per diem, no minimum wage, and an average salary of $8,000.

Clearly, things have changed for players in the NBA in the decades to follow. Many now see the exorbitant multi-million dollar contracts celebrities like LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and others earn and think they don’t need a union. The NBPA like all unions is established for the benefit of the group, the player that aren’t  stars, the individuals that could be mistreated and left with no healthcare if no one else was watching. Unions in America were generally created to protect the rights of the individual against the owners of big business and the NBPA is no exception.

It may surprise people to discover that the NBA’s labor union has been setting standards for sport unions all  have followed. In 1983 the NBPA was the first to established the salary cap. This quickly spread throughout numerous other sports and is now considered one of the cornerstones in maintaining equitable competition between major market and middle market teams.

The greatest weapon of any labor union is often seen as its ability to strike. The first of four work stoppages in the NBA occurred in 1995. From July 1 to September 12 the NBPA was locked out. No games were missed, but the incident demonstrated heightened tensions between player and owner interests. The next two NBA lockouts did impact the seasons when 464 regular season games were missed in 1998 due to a second lockout and the first 6 weeks were missed due to a lockout in 2012.

The most recent lockout was due to a conflict over revenue sharing and the salary cap. Eventually, differences were worked out, but it stands as a reminder that in America we value the right of an individuals ability to organize and we protect these rights with federal laws such as the Fair Labor Standards Act and the National Labor Relations Act “Wagner Act.”

The NBPA also broke new ground by fully supporting Jason Collins coming out to the world and the NBA as being homosexual.  Jason Collins was the first widely acknowledged openly gay member of the NBA and the NBPA’s vocal support and endorsement of its member can not be over-emphasized. This directs a shift in social norms and demonstrates a leadership toward acceptance.

The Labor Movement in American and the NBPA are not perfect. Clearly, both have made significant mistakes and missteps along the way. I do not want it to appear that I am blindly pro-union. Their is a balancing act between individual rights and owner rights that clearly must be found where the interests of all are met and judiciousness is achieved, Yet, this Labor Day lets appreciate the fact that in America we fight for the rights of the individual. We often take this for granted. This is a beautiful thing about America and we should never forget how rare it truly is. The NBPA has been at the forefront of this battle for a long, long time.

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Photo Credit: NBPA

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