Do Your Own Thing
The Commish takes players to task for not having a plan for an alternate league.
For the past two years, the National Basketball Players Association had aggressively encouraged the players to save money. The almost inevitable lockout was sure to come and they couldn’t allow the slimmer pockets that come along with lost paychecks to weaken the union’s resolve to “stand strong” against the leverage-holding NBA owners’ bully tactics.
Think about that, though. For two years, everyone intimately involved with League’s labor strife have known that this lockout was basically a sure thing, games would be loss, maybe even a season. “Save your paper, people.” That was the union’s mandate. Smooth. Great advice. No, seriously—very practical advice.
But do you know what should have been taking place over these past two years, what would have actually given the players some substantial negotiating leverage aside from this frail and abstract idea of what is just or fair? The players should have pooled money and, along with their agents and managers, went out and hired some of the world’s most creative business minds and sought out deep pocket investors to create the model for an alternate, sustainable and lucrative professional basketball league. Use all their capital—time, ideas, money, star power, etc.—to create their own leverage.
A few weeks ago, when the League was on the verge of cancelling the start of the season, Amar’e Stoudemire jumped into a few days’ news cycles by throwing the “League Of Our Own” notion out there.
“If we don’t go to Europe, then let’s start our own league; that’s how I see it,” said Stoudemire. “It’s very, very serious. It’s just a matter of us strategically coming up with a plan, a blueprint and putting it together. So we’ll see how this lockout goes. If it goes one or two years, then we’ve got to start our own league.”
See what I’m saying? “It’s just a matter of us strategically coming up with a plan.”
Stoudemire’s comments were met with either intrigue or derision. I scoffed, recognizing that “very, very serious” was a charade. Two years. Two years! Two years of near certain knowledge that the hard-lining owners wanted to blow up the system and were willing to risk a season (or even seasons) to get what they want and the players never made a wholehearted and concerted effort to counteract that resolve with leverage of their own.
They should have been meeting for the past two years to prepare to enter these negotiations with this sentiment: “Oh, you want to squash the season and shaft us with unfair BRI splits and restrictions on free markets just so you can implement idiot measures for you and your executives and so you don’t have to share your revenues with each other? OK. Bet. Well we have this blueprint for the Basketball Players League that we’re ready to move on. So keep digging in, we’re about to get our own thing popping.”
And by “own thing” I mean something legitimate that resembled the NBA on a smaller scale and, initially, less lucrative; but still viable.
This is why the past four months of barnstorming and exhibition games have been such a tired, cornball circus. In a few days, a couple dozen “All-Stars” are going to embark on a six-city international tour they’re calling the World All-Star Classic. Who cares? I wish I did, but I don’t.
At first blush, it might seem ground breaking. And it may be. Securing independent financing to pay six to seven-figures to more than three handfuls of players to go tour the world has plenty of merit. It isn’t, however, very telling or revealing, at all. The idealistic—or just plain ignorant—folks project all kinds of optimism on this tour, as if it’s some strong display of player autonomy.
“See, the players can go out there and get it themselves. They don’t need the NBA.”
Wrong. Super-extra-crazy wrong. There’s never been any doubt that the League’s stars could get together and put on a few exhibitions and get paid for it. But Earl Watson, Erik Dampier and Thabo Sefolosha can’t get anywhere near that kind of financing for the World Role-Players Classic. Matter fact, Andrew Bynum, Jrue Holiday and Danny Granger couldn’t get close to that financing to put together a World Really-Good-Young-Players Classic, either.
At the heart of this labor battle is everyone other than the superstars—owners, executives, non-franchise players getting franchise money, role players, overpaid role players, you name it. Owners want idiot measures to help ensure they don’t overpay the rank and file and the union wants to ensure that the non superstars aren’t taken to the shed, bent over a bale of hay and, uh, ahem. The 18 players participating in the World All-Star Classic have the least at stake.
The World All-Star players, however, have the only amount of leverage and cachet to be found within the union ranks: people want to see them—and them, specifically—play basketball. But that comes with a caveat. The public only really wants to see them play a brand of basketball that doesn’t look like a pick-up game. The public wants coaching and strategy and… competition. You need the rest of the union for that.
So get to it. There are other billionaires that want to spend (and make) money on professional sports. That’s evident by the recent ownership changes in cities like Atlanta, Detroit, Philadelphia and Oakland, where each franchise, by the way, was sold at an appreciated value. And there are other cities that have an appetite for professional basketball. There are other television stations that want to televise professional basketball.
Let the owners hard-line. It’s unlikely that anything created would rival the NBA in terms of how many players it employs and how much dough it shells out. Maybe the Basketball Players League only has 16 teams, employing about 200 players. And it wouldn’t be able to afford $120 million contracts. But it could be the USFL, except it would employ the best athletes, not a few renegade stars and castaways. Ideally, that’s still not what the union wants, but check the alternative—no leverage, vulnerable to bully tactics. Really though, we should already know what the skeletal structure of this league looks like.
College athletes—a small quorum, no Heisman candidates—got proactive this week with their fight against the downright immoral shenanigans of the NCAA and it’s football and men’s basketball conferences and universities. About 300 kids at five universities, led by the National College Players Association, signed a petition telling university presidents that they want a cut of the katrillion dollars the players generate for their schools. When asked if the petition was on the agenda of the NCAA board of directors’ meeting, NCAA president Mark Emmert told The Associated Press that it was not. Why? Because, as he put it, many board members were probably unaware of it.
You know what that says? It says that the NCAA isn’t sensitive enough to its players’ concerns. If the NCAA’s collective antennae were really up, its ears to the ground, the board of directors would have been well aware of the budding movement. If they were anything other arrogant and greedy, the petition would have already been an agenda item—even if it were just to discuss how to shoot it down and quell an uprising. The players, hopefully, are about to really get the fat cats’ attention. I’m for any type of systematic upheaval. Boycott bowls, “occupy” league offices. It’s whatever.
We don’t live in a Communist society, but the struggle between Marx’s bourgeoisie and proletariat classes is a universal one. Things are reaching a tipping point in the collegiate ranks—you can feel it. It’s far less acute in the NBA, but the opportunity is still there.
We’ve endured a lot of whining and apologies from the players over the last month. #LetUsPlay. “I want to sincerely aplologize [sic] to the fans. We want to get back on the court and entertain, but we can’t accept an unfair deal.” And then, inevitably, “news breaks” about some new exhibition game planned where the best athletes in the world practice throwing alley-oops off the backboard to each other. I’m good on that—good on all of it.
Creating a new league can’t just be an idea any longer or some notion seriously considered this time next year after the owners cancelled a full season. The players wasted two effing years getting started on a viable alternative. Don’t keep pussyfooting. The only leverage is an uprising. Get your friend Warren Buffet on the horn, LeBron.
Vincent Thomas is a columnist and feature writer for SLAM, a contributing columnist and commentator for ESPN. You can email him your feedback at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @vincecathomas.