NBA Lockout Taking Predictable Course

Barrington M. Salmon | 10/26/2011, 3:11 p.m.
NBA Commissioner David Stern

The NBA lockout is going into its fourth month with no end in sight. Commissioner David Stern announced this past Tuesday that two more weeks of regular season games have been canceled which, in some ways, puts added pressure on both sides to find ways out of the labyrinth of distrust, claims and counter-claims about who's doing what to whom.

Yet, at a time when ordinary Americans worry about job security, millions lack access to health care and in too many cases men, women and children go to bed hungry, it is difficult to drum up a great deal of sympathy for billionaires and multimillionaires fighting at the trough to see who ends up with mo' money.

These contract negotiations remind me of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in the sense that any significant forward progress is hung up on preconditions. From all accounts, the players and union have been boxed in by Stern and the owners who are demanding that players accept a 50-50 split of BRIs - basketball related income - as a precondition to discussing the salary cap and other issues. The owners know they have the upper hand and appear willing to hammer the players. To the untrained eye, that looks a lot like a shakedown to me. If two sides are sitting across from each other trying to work out a deal, imposing preconditions is hardly a sensible or trustworthy way to go. But it is an excellent way to ensure at the end of the day that the side holding the knife handle walks away with the pot of gold.

Makes me wonder if the owners aren't using these talks as a way to bust the union once and for all. In the beginning, owners argued that some key components of the system had to change for the league to remain viable. Among the issues: the league's push to close the gap between its highest and lowest spenders and finding mechanisms to increase the competitiveness between small-market and large-market teams. Owners have also said they want to establish a hard cap to produce competitive balance and make the league more successful, entertaining and competitive.

Three days and 30 hours of talks - presided over by a federal mediator - ended in a stalemate and elicited more visions of the entire 2011-2012 season slipping away. That has left observers to wonder if both sides realize what's at stake.

No one is saying that the owners shouldn't make money but if they made unwise financial choices in their chase to secure a championship, their future financial well-being should not be achieved on the backs of the players.

I don't know if I've ever seen columnists and sportswriters hammer a group of people as I have in this case. Owners have been called greedy, billionaires run amok, misguided, foolhardy, and a host of other unsavory names.

David Aldridge, a respected sports columnist and reporter, presents a compelling case to support those assertions: "If the league gets the 10-year deal it has previously offered to the union -- the NBA has subsequently offered the union an out after seven years -- that means the NBA's teams will get, at minimum, $1.8 billion in direct transfer from the players' wallets to the owners' wallets over the life of the deal. And that doesn't take into account the escrow plan that has been in place since 2005 and returned more than $1 billion in salaries to the owners.

No one is saying that the league is lying about losing money, or that it is wrong in its belief that the financial structure of the game has to change. Nor are the players correct in continuing to act sometimes as if they are mine workers. They are basketball players, paid more than 98 percent of the working people on earth, and coming out of a severe recession, it's not unreasonable to ask for a substantial giveback. But $1.8 billion over 10 years is a substantial giveback, not a mere gesture. At some point, a win becomes a rout. The league has gotten salaries back in line, it will make it harder for the Lakers to spend $110 million in the future and it supposedly has a "robust" revenue-sharing plan in place to help the smaller markets. When is enough enough?"

Indeed. It took years for the NBA to recover from the 1998-99 lockout. Angry and disaffected fans walked away in droves. With a similar situation on hand, it would behoove the owners to consider the fallout of winning the battle but losing the war.

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