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Theo Ratliff anticipates “long, hard fight”

The talk of the national sports scene this spring has been the NFL lockout, a spotlight the NBA could take after its collective bargaining agreement expires June 30. In the heat of the discussions between owners and players over the next several months will be NBA veteran and Demopolis native Theo Ratliff.

“We are getting down to crunch time now with real negotiations,” Ratliff, vice president of the NBA Players Association, said Monday.

While the NFL deliberates over an 18-game schedule and how to split a $9 billion pie, the settlement of the NBA’s hot button issues could likely have a more profound, longer-lasting impact on the league and the way it operates.

At the core of the NBA debates are the issues of free agency and contracts.

“They are basically trying to change our whole structure that we have been using,” Ratliff said. “They want us on a hard cap totally.”

The NBA has long operated under what is considered a soft salary cap for teams. The complex language of the current collective bargaining agreement allows for a number of cap allowances such as veteran’s exceptions and bird rights. Teams are also allowed to exceed their allotted salary cap in an effort to re-sign their own players.

According to Ratliff, owners are also seeking to rid the league of guaranteed contracts, opting for a system more like that of the NFL in which teams have the option of cutting a player without paying him the entire amount of his deal.

While the move would provide more financial flexibility for teams, it would also have a significant effect on players who sustain injuries or provide diminishing returns.

The discussion is one that hits close to home for Ratliff, who battled a series of injuries during the prime years of his career. Ratliff had a long-term contract that was often traded and always satisfied thanks to the language of the league’s collective bargaining agreement.

“It would have changed a lot because you would have had an opportunity for a team to just cut you,” Ratliff said of the impact non-guaranteed contracts would have had on himself and other players under the current collective bargaining agreement.

The Los Angeles Lakers center and former NBA all-star pointed out that the focus of ownership is to get all of its member franchises to the point of profitability, a prospect that becomes far less viable with a slew of bad contracts and poor signings by the league’s front office decision makers.

As the summer approaches, the threat of a work stoppage looms greater by the day. But, in Ratliff’s estimation, proceeding forward with a well-functioning league may not necessarily mean avoiding a stoppage.

“As a player, you can’t give that up,” Ratliff said of guaranteed contracts and soft cap allowances. “If you give it up, you are never going to get it back again. It’s going to be a long, hard fight.”

Ratliff indicated that the NBA Players Association has been working to equip its members for a work stoppage, keeping them informed of progress while also advising them on how to manage their current finances.

“We know we have to stand our ground and be ready,” Ratliff said. “Hopefully guys have saved up their money and are ready.”

While Ratliff’s words seem to point to the imminency of a forthcoming lockout, he also makes it apparent that it is the hope of the NBA Players Association to avoid such a scenario.

“(A lockout is) going to hurt (the owners) a lot,” Ratliff said. “I guess they feel like it would be worth more for them to have a work stoppage. It just puts a negative light on the NBA and all it has been working for the last 10 to 15 years.”