During the gone-and-largely-forgotten NFL labor dispute, owners expressed exasperation with NFLPA outside counsel Jeffrey Kessler. Perceived by the league for years as gratuitously belligerent and hostile, some believed that Kessler wanted to lose a season in order to secure a gargantuan antitrust verdict, which could have been parlayed into partial ownership of the NFL’s teams by the players.
Eventually, NFLPA leadership eased Kessler into a less visible role. Some believe that, with the labor situation now resolved, the NFLPA eventually will sever ties with him.
But Kessler has other clients. He’s ears deep in the NBA lockout, working for the NBA Players Association. And he seems to be emerging as a key figure in the talks, as the talks continue to go nowhere.
Kessler, pictured with NBA Players Association executive director Billy Hunter, recently addressed the NBA’s pending bottom-line offer, in terms that invoked Bryant Gumbel’s controversial comments from last month. “To present that in the context of ‘take it or leave it,’ in our view, that is not good faith,” Kessler told Amy Shipley of the Washington Post. “Instead of treating the players like partners, they’re treating them like plantation workers.”
In response, NBA Commissioner David Stern unloaded with both barrels. “Kessler’s agenda is always to inflame and not to make a deal, even if it means injecting race and thereby insulting his own clients,” Stern told Shipley. “He has been the single most divisive force in our negotiations and it doesn’t surprise me he would rant and not talk about specifics. Kessler’s conduct is routinely despicable.”
Kessler’s conduct also is arguably inconsistent. In 2006, when Kessler worked for late NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw, the players eventually made a “take it or leave it” offer to the league. So what’s wrong with management using the same tool?
After the NFL lockout ended, a high-level source with one of the 32 teams predicted that Kessler would deploy against the NBA the leverage-through-litigation strategy that he wasn’t able to use against the NFL. With increased talk of the NBA players belatedly using the same decertify-and-sue approach that the NFLPA utilized and with more than a week of the NBA season already gone, that prediction could be coming true.