The Commish on the latest in the NBA labor dispute.
NBA owners are making public opinion history. It takes a hubris-dripping amount of greed to make professional athletes seem like quasi-activists for worker rights, but that’s basically where we’re at. In today’s post-Enron/”Wall Street Bailout” America, filthy rich billionaires can’t be so cavalier about their money-grubbing, even if, on the other side of the labor line, stands one of the country’s pariah archetypes, the “rich, spoiled, millionaire athlete.”
With the players union and owners unable to make progress on a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) that would end the lockout and save the scheduled start of the season, the League said the first two weeks of the regular season would be canceled if a new deal was not reached by Monday. In other news, the bad guys are now clearly identifiable after a summer of ambiguity as to which side held claim to the moral high-ground real estate. The divvying up of basketball-related income, a.k.a. BRI, is what this all about now, and the owners’ M.O. is one of uncheckable, unwarranted greed. They know the game is blowing up all over the world—almost entirely due to its marketable players—and with revenues on the rise, they want a bigger share than they deserve. It might actually be time to put love of basketball on the backburner and root for the players—just on principal.
When this whole labor dispute began this summer, there were basketball issues to be resolved. Both sides—the owners and the players—tried to posture, convince the public and media that they stood on the side of fairness, honor. But it wasn’t about them—it was about basketball. There was a competitive imbalance, some teams were losing money and the system needed to be fixed. Whichever side was pushing for concessions or restructuring that benefited The Game, was the side to root for. That often meant siding with the owners.
Where I come from, professional athletes are almost never begrudged their salaries. “Get your money, man,” is a maxim. But if there’s a way, via a new CBA, for them to stay rich, while also putting into place some indirect, latent policing measures for the humans that make franchise decisions, then that’s what hoops fans should root for. (As always, for anything CBA-related, you can check Larry Coon’s FAQ for the best explanation in the biz.)
Morality, even fairness, wasn’t really an issue. All you had to do to determine which side was worthy of support was ask, “which side is arguing for what I think will make the League better and/or give my favorite squad a better chance to compete?”
Last month, the owners’ “Why We Need This Lockout” poster boy, Rashard Lewis got candid: “Talk to the owner. He gave me the deal,” said Lewis, who is—no joke—the second highest paid player in the League. “When it comes to contracts, the players aren’t sitting there negotiating that contract. I’m sitting at home and my agent calls me, saying, ‘I got a max on the table.’ I’m not going to sit there and say, ‘Naw, that’s too much. Go out there and negotiate $20 or $30 [million] less.’ ”
Exactly. It pains me to quote Pink songs when referencing the NBA, but she says she’s her own personal “hazard” in “Don’t Let Me Get Me.” That’s like an ode to NBA owners and personnel executives. Any system that has built-in checks and balances to either keep execs from making stupid decisions or helps franchises recover from the bonehead decisions quicker is a good thing.
As a guest writer for ESPN.com, the outspoken and thoughtful Etan Thomas wrote an impassioned (but smarmy) piece from the mind of the owners that included this passage: “We also know that if teams controlled their own spending, hired the right people to evaluate talent and made better decisions, they wouldn’t be operating in the red.”
The problem is that there’s not a whole lot of rationale when it comes to pro sports decision-making. So the owners wanted things like a hard cap, a revision of guaranteed contacts, shorter length contracts, an amnesty clause (which would allow squads to waive one player contract without it counting against the cap)—things that would provide, as it was termed early in this process, “profit certainty.” You could also refer to them as “idiot measures.”
By now, however, both sides have come to, at least, tacit agreement on many of the actual basketball/competition-impacting issues—salary rollbacks are out, there will be a “less hard” cap, new contracts lengths appropriately shortened. So what are they left with? BRI.
This is how the Players Association president characterized the negotiations in a letter to the union: “The owners have long been pushing for significant economic relief and we have differences about the extent of the owners’ losses. There have been numerous proposals to shift more dollars to the owners’ side and help cover the increased cost of running this business. In our last formal proposal, we offered to reduce our share of BRI to 52.4 percent, and then gradually increase that percentage over the course of a six-year deal to 54 percent, yielding an average of 53 percent. This offer—measured against our current system which guarantees us 57 percent of BRI—shifts an average of $185 million per year to the owners’ side, for a total of $1.1 billion over six years…
“The owners, on the other hand, have been in a far different place. Prior to yesterday, they had stood on an offer averaging 46 percent of BRI, rolling back this year’s salaries and benefits to $2 billion flat and growing very slowly over 10 years. Yesterday, they hoped to exchange back and forth offers in an effort to bring our proposal as far down as possible. They began the day offering an increase of just over one point—to an average of 47 percent. (They characterized the proposal as a 50-50 split, but with a new $350 million expense deduction, their offer would actually result in the players receiving only 47 percent of current BRI.) We informed them, in no uncertain terms, that such an offer was unacceptable, and that we would not engage in this type of horse trading.”
“Nobody pays to see the owners.” That’s not a cliché’, that’s a truism. Yet, while the players continue to show a willingness to concede, the owners want to gobble up the money the players make them. And they have all the leverage. Players are rich because of the NBA. The owners—many landing in Forbes annual list of the richest Americans—were living like Ken Jeong’s Slim Chin character before they owned a team. Owning a team is not their main source of income. Like Malcolm Gladwell recently wrote, it’s more like owning a piece of art, one that they can sell for upwards of $400 million, if ever they get the urge.
The owners are engaging in bully tactics. Bullying has recently become a hot topic in this country. There’s a government website dedicated to stopping it. America hates bullies now. And with the shameful income-gap chasm growing wider, America is starting to despise billionaires, especially bully-billionaires. It’s crazy, but the owners have actually turned the players into millionaire victims.
Doomsday is a few days away. The owners can either back off or keep giving the players wedgies.
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.