Arbitrator sets hearing in Artest suspension appeal

Friday, December 3rd 2004, 7:47 pm
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ Two weeks after the fact, lawyers for the NBA and the players' union had their own little brawl.

Attorneys for the two sides fought before an arbitrator and in federal court Friday, arguing over what avenues of appeal should be employed for the four players suspended by commissioner David Stern for fighting with fans during a Nov. 19 Pacers-Pistons game.

Arbitrator Roger Kaplan ruled that he has jurisdiction to decide whether the brawl-related suspensions given to Ron Artest and other players can be appealed to someone other than Stern, and the NBA responded by filing a lawsuit in federal court challenging the arbitrator's authority.

Kaplan scheduled a hearing for next Thursday, although the matter will next be contested Monday in U.S. District Court in Manhattan.

Also, the Oakland County prosecutor's office said it believes authorities have identified each of the Indiana Pacers players and fans who violated state law in a brawl last month at The Palace, though it will not release identities until charges are filed.

The NBA's suit named the National Basketball Players Association, Artest, Stephen Jackson, Anthony Johnson and Jermaine O'Neal as defendants and said they improperly tried to require the NBA to litigate the propriety of the suspensions before a grievance arbitrator.

The NBA contends the commissioner has sole authority under collective bargaining rules for imposing discipline on players for on-court behavior.

The players' union argues it never agreed to the spirit of any rule that would give the commissioner unchecked power to levy suspensions of the length he gave to Artest (the remainder of the 2003-04 season), Jackson (30 games), O'Neal (25 games) and Anthony Johnson (five games) for fighting with fans during a wild melee at the end of an Indiana Pacers-Detroit Pistons game two weeks ago.

``Ultimately, one way or another, that issue is likely to get decided in federal court,'' NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik said. ``Our view was (the arbitrator) should not even look at it, so we didn't submit anything.''

In his ruling, Kaplan indicated next Wednesday's hearing would first decide the arbitability of the union's attempt to challenge Stern's penalties.

If he were to rule in the union's favor, he would then hear arguments on whether the commissioner had just cause to levy some of the longest fight-related suspensions in league history.

The union said the suspended players would travel to New York for the hearing, although the league could ask for a temporary restraining order halting any such proceeding.

After initially setting a hearing date of Wednesday, Kaplan held a conference call with both sides and rescheduled it for Dec. 9-10, putting it in conflict with a previously scheduled session to negotiate a labor agreement to replace the one expiring after this season.

Union director Billy Hunter issued a statement saying he was pleased with Kaplan's ruling.

``The ability to have a neutral party review a precedent-setting, and in our view excessive, disciplinary decision is a basic right under our collective bargaining agreement, as well as a fundamental principle of our system of justice,'' Hunter said.

The union did not immediately comment on the NBA's ensuing lawsuit.

The Oakland County prosecutor's office said Friday it believes authorities have identified all of the players and fans who violated state law in the brawl. Police expect to present the case to prosecutors Monday.

Auburn Hills police Lt. James Manning said Friday that investigators planned to continue trying to identify all fans who entered the court during the fight and those who dumped drinks and debris on players as they exited the floor. Those fans will be charged under a local ordinance that prohibits that kind of behavior at a sporting event.