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  • Budd Bailey

Book Review: The Cap

Updated: Sep 27, 2023

Review by Budd Bailey

It might be the most important day in American sports history that no one notices, let alone celebrates.

The day is October 8, 1982. The National Basketball Association and its Players Association hadn’t been able to come to any sort of agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement. The owners were claiming that they were under great financial hardship, while the players thought that some of those wounds were self-inflected – meaning that they shouldn’t bear the burden of solving those problems alone.

The players previously had rejected a revolutionary concept that ownership had brought up earlier in the negotiations. The concept was to limit player expenses to a particular percentage of league revenues – in other words, a “cap.” The players association had rejected the idea out of hand. But now, Players Association president Larry Fleisher told the ownership committee, including future NBA Commissioner David Stern, that he was open to discussing the concept.

The idea had come up during negotiations involving the National Football League that fall. But the players’ concept was closer to a pay scale bordering on what might be called socialism, with fewer incentives for individual achievement. The NFLPA struck early in the ’82 season, but the job action soon fell apart.

Fleisher saw something that few others did at that moment. The NBA had good-sized problems at that point, as many teams were losing money and there was talk of franchises folding. If the players could make some small compromises, they could officially latch on to a guaranteed percentage of revenues when/if the league started growing. With cable television promising to give all of pro sports a major boost in the future, that wasn’t a bad idea. It was time to explore the idea.

Naturally, revolutions don’t take place quickly, especially in labor negotiations. The right number – something around 53 percent – had to be determined. Fleisher was quick enough to figure out that some players were in special situations, and that any salary cap needed to accommodate them. What should be done about the salaries of superstar rookies like Ralph Sampson? How would the retirement of “expensive” veterans like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar do to the cap? Should teams have a way to give economic incentives to players such as Larry Bird in order to improve their chances of re-signing them? Those were the correct questions at the time, and no one was too sure about the answers.

It took considerable negotiating before everything came together. Finally, in April of the following year, the Players Association and the league was close enough to a deal where the players called off their strike threat. Once that was all figured out, other leagues followed the NBA’s example. Each sport had its own slight differences; baseball is using a luxury tax rather than a firm cap to try to hold down player expenditures. But the outcomes have been more or less the same, at least eventually – player salaries are up, and franchise values are up as well.

Mendelsohn is a good choice for someone to guide us through this process. He has been involved in labor law for some time, and has worked on sports and entertainment cases. Mendelsohn takes his time covering the whole story, going back to the early days of a players’ association through the eventual breakthrough settlement. Luckily, there are plenty of good stories and personalities to cover along the way.

The book probably is more concerned with the players’ side of the history of the issue. Mendelsohn has some admiration for how Fleisher operated, keeping the players united during some difficult struggles. But there don’t seem to be many villains here either, although Cleveland Cavaliers owner Ted Stepien doesn’t come off too well at all (nor should he). Stern was smart enough to lead his side into uncharted waters. One surprise is that NBA Commissioner Larry O’Brien is shown to be quite involved in the process, even if he isn’t a part of the main negotiating team. I’ve read other accounts that show O’Brien to be relatively disengaged during much of his time as the NBA’s boss, and this also gives him credit for settling the famous Oscar Robertson lawsuit in 1976 that cleared a major roadblock that was in the league’s way toward eventual prosperity.

I’m not about to tell you that “The Cap” qualifies as beach reading. Mendelsohn does a good job of explaining what was going on in a given period of time in clear language. There is some repetition along the way, and maybe we could have lost 20 or so pages of text that were devoted to lengthy statements. But I’m never going to argue with someone who wants to tell the full story. Those who are seeding answers to the question “How did we get here?” when it comes to the sports business should find this to be an important book in that quest.

(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)

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