NBA Players Looking to Win PR War During Lockout

by August 29, 2011

One major lesson from the 1998–’99 lockout for NBA players is that it’s nearly just as important to win the battle of public perception, as it is the one in the boardroom while sitting across from team owners. From the NY Times: “The 204-day lockout in 1998 spawned many regrettable remarks, the kind that cast players as greedy and callous, alienate fans and become instantly enshrined in the unofficial catalog of ‘Things Pro Athletes Shouldn’t Say in Public.’ With history as their guide, the N.B.A.’s current generation of locked-out players is striving to play a better public-relations game this time around. They have been in contractual limbo since July 1, with no resolution in sight. But they have largely kept their commentary on point and their Twitter feeds in check. ‘It was a huge emphasis,’ Derek Fisher, the president of the National Basketball Players Association, said in a telephone interview. ‘The reality is, we’re in a great position, where guys have worked to put themselves in this place where they can potentially earn millions of dollars.’ At Fisher’s direction, the union last fall distributed a 56-page lockout handbook to its 400-plus players. Tucked between tabs on ‘budgeting’ and ‘player services’ is a section devoted to ‘media,’ with talking points on everything from the N.B.A.’s financial losses (‘vastly overstated’) to franchise values (‘Warriors just sold for $450M’). But the key point, perhaps, is this simple reminder: ‘Please be sensitive about interviews or other media displays of a luxurious lifestyle.’ This was more than a minor problem in 1998. On the first day of that lockout, the union president Patrick Ewing declared that players were ‘fighting for our rights’ — a modest overstatement that invited ridicule and presaged the public-relations nightmare to come. In October, Kenny Anderson, a star guard with a $49 million contract, laid out his finances for The New York Times. Among his expenses: $75,000 for insurance and maintenance on his eight cars. Anderson joked that he might have to sell one. ‘You know, just get rid of the Mercedes,’ he said. The low point for players came two months later, when agents organized a charity game, with some of the proceeds earmarked for out-of-work players. As Ewing explained then, professional athletes ‘make a lot of money, but they also spend a lot of money.'”