On Monday, the NBA players rejected the league’s latest offer, began the process of dis­banding their union and pre­pared for legal action against the owners. This devel­op­ment in the NBA labor nego­ti­a­tions could jeop­ar­dize the entire 2011–2012 season. We asked Roger Abrams, Richardson Pro­fessor of Law at North­eastern University’s School of Law, to dis­cuss the legal details of the NBA lockout, and what both sides seek to gain and lose going forward.

How did the NBA lockout get to this point of legal action? Why do players see an advan­tage in going to court?

The deci­sion of the National Bas­ket­ball Players Asso­ci­a­tion (NBPA) to dis­band their union offers the players an oppor­tu­nity to use the fed­eral antitrust law in their “battle” with the owners. Many of the restric­tions con­tained in the col­lec­tive bar­gaining agree­ment between the owners and the players’ union — such as lim­i­ta­tions on salaries and the move­ment of players — would vio­late the antitrust laws if they were not the product of free and open col­lec­tive bargaining. Without a union, the owners may risk antitrust dam­ages, which will be tre­bled under national law.

What does filing an antitrust action against the NBA mean for both players and owners? What do both sides seek to gain and lose from taking legal action?

The use of the courts in lieu of col­lec­tive bar­gaining is rarely done in labor relations. Unions have gen­er­ally been dis­ap­pointed by court actions. There comes a time, how­ever, when you need some addi­tional “weapons” to sup­port your posi­tion in col­lec­tive bar­gaining. It is a drastic step to dis­band the union, but the players felt they needed to take that step to pre­serve the gains won over many years and some mod­icum of respect from the owners. The owners would have pre­ferred, of course, for the union to accept their “final offer.” Now they will have go on defense in court. (And, as you know, defense wins or loses championships.)

How does this sit­u­a­tion com­pare to what the NFL, its owners and players went through this summer, and how could this all turn out com­pared to that sit­u­a­tion? What is the like­li­hood that there will even be a short­ened NBA season?

The NBPA is using the same tactic already fol­lowed by the NFL Players Asso­ci­a­tion ear­lier this year. While the NFLPA was suc­cessful in the fed­eral dis­trict court in Min­nesota, the 8th Cir­cuit Court of Appeals ruled that the par­ties were still involved in a labor dis­pute, and thus the court ruled it could not order an injunc­tion stop­ping the owners’ lockout because courts do not have the power to do so under national law in a labor dispute. That stopped the lit­i­ga­tion, and the par­ties then reached a deal.

I think this entire NBA season is now doomed. It will take some time for a court to rule on the players’ claim. There will then be an appeal, how­ever the lower court rules. But at least col­lege bas­ket­ball has started.