We know NBA owners are split into two camps—the hard liners and the moderates—and we know that it is the commissioner’s job to find enough common ground between the two factions of ownership to create and then propose an offer reasonable enough for the players to accept. Of course we know how that plan went. Now we know that the lawyers have taken over—is there ever a scenario where that is a positive result? But when looking back at the issues and the tactics of the previous lockout it is astonishing to see the similarities between the two. If the commissioner is following the same path then we can expect deadlines to be set and re-set until one is met by the players—the one where Stern threatens to cancel the season.
The one irrefutable fact behind all this nonsense is that it is not actually based on finances anymore, it is based on ego. There is no bigger ego in basketball than Michael Jordan and there is little doubt that his power within the game helped push the negotiations to a brink—but during his previous incarnation as a player he made a bold statement to one of the struggling owners, (he told Washington owner Abe Pollin that if he couldn’t “make a profit he should sell the team”) and that line served as an impetus for the players to tell Michael to go suck an egg.
Stern may have been a progressive commissioner three decades ago and his forward certainly thinking helped pull the league from the abyss. But the days of the playoff greatness with Bird and Magic and Michael have been replaced by selfish players making self-aggrandizing television shows. Fans are much more easily swayed into disliking a superstar than ever before. The NBA stopped being a forward-thinking league years ago. In today’s game even the scrub players complain when they don’t get a call.
In response the league instituted a no complaining rule last year, hoping that would be enough to lessen the league’s rapidly deteriorating image. But the players are not the only problem—the league itself has shown cracks over the years, the biggest crack being Tim Donaghy. It wasn’t even the NBA that fingered Donaghy for taking advantage of the league’s leniency in its game. The FBI was investigating several gambling rings when they came across his name.
Now Stern looks across the table and shakes his head at the players and wonders when they grew into such a monster. He is getting older, this is likely his last stand as negotiator, and he will soon need to conduct a search for his replacement as soon as this deal is done. Things are moving too fast for him. It’s not surprising then that he is resorting to the same negotiating strategy.
The NBA locked the players out before the 1998-99 season and kept the game in hibernation until January 20, 1999. That was the third lockout in four years but the first one that actually had lost games. In 1995 there was a brief two month stoppage and in 1996 an even shorter one that lasted mere hours. It seemed that the NBA recognized the loss of games could cause the game to free fall into its previously apathetic state. But while the following 50 game season was a mess from both a competitive and a marketing standpoint the league flourished in the following years and proved that the game could survive a lockout. The owners believe that the game will stay strong and lucrative whenever it resumes.
The issues in 1998 were exactly the same as they are now in 2011—the owners believe they need a harder salary cap and more money from the BRI (basketball related income). The owners claimed that more than two-thirds of its teams lost money—again similar to the situation we are presently in. That lockout came to an end when Stern gave the players a drop dead date of January 7, 1999 to reach an accord or he would cancel the season. The players then began to divide on the issues and in the end gave in so the season could begin. Stern is playing the same game, setting deadlines and waiting for the players to cave once multiple paycheques are missed.
The agreement that was reached in 1999, one that was extremely beneficial for the owners, is now the agreement the NBA owners are willing to lose a season to completely overhaul. It was good for them in 1999 but it is terrible for them in 2011. And they want as big a victory now as they did a dozen years ago.
The players do not want another massive loss. Bred for competition it goes against the nature of professional athletes to accept defeat, especially when it looks as if the owners are rubbing their noses in it. Hunter likes his job as the players’ mouthpiece but is in a difficult spot. There was no way he was going to look good through these negotiations and since he didn’t look good in the previous one these were likely his final days as union head. With the NBA insisting on the nearly complete shrinkage of the basketball middle class—superstars and the rookies were far less affected—and with Fisher, along with Hunter one of the few remaining from the previous fight and himself a member of that middle class, constantly spouting in Hunter’s ear his concerns he had to know that a reasonable negotiation was not possible. This stand-off should have been the expected result.
Stern will now take a tough public stance and appear to be staring down his opponents. Privately though he should be seeking some compromise within the ownership structure to hopefully present to the players and perhaps save the year. It won’t take much now. The players will agree to the deal and save the season if they just get a little bit in return. Stern needs to convince the owners that a small change hand-out could save millions in the end. He doesn’t want a lost year to be the culminating mark of his career.
Ownership has to know that a complete and humiliating victory in this matter will do more harm that good—that is unless Michael Jordan is wrapped so tight he is unable to think straight. It’s ironic considering Jordan’s team is losing as much money in one year as he apparently gambled annually during his heyday. If owners want substantial revenue then they need the players to perform at a high level. It doesn’t matter how low your payroll is if the club is losing sixty games and the players obviously don’t give a damn.
…There is still so much hubbub about pitchers being allowed on the ballot for MVP that even after Justin Verlander was awarded the trophy people were still questioning it. Even Jose Bautista got into the act questioning how a pitcher could compete on the same level with an everyday player. But with elite teams now paying $20 million plus per year for pitchers it proves just how valuable rotation aces are and it is unreasonable to then claim they are not as important as a position player who is being paid far less.
…Sidney Crosby is back—and that is good news for everyone involved in the NHL. His concussion set off enough alarms at headquarters that forced the league to get serious about reducing the amount of head shots in its game. The league still has further to go but at least they realize that its best player has to play to be marketable.
…After being criticized for appointing internal investigators Penn State hired a former FBI director to lead the Jerry Sandusky investigation. Louis Freeh states that he will go back as far as needed to get all the evidence on the case. Let’s hope so.
Follow me on twitter @mhobson12Tags: Billy Hunter, David Stern, Derek Fisher, Jose Bautista, Justin Verlander, Michael Jordan, NBA Lockout, Penn State, Sidney Crosby