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We Just Don't Know

With the long-anticipated NBA lockout finally upon us, everyone seems to have an opinion. Owners are crowing about losing money. Players are crowing back about the very real possibility that they will lose money. Journalists are doing everything from strictly factual note-taking to suggesting solutions to the work stoppage. Fans are furious.

All sides agree that the fans are the big losers here, and they’re right to an extent. As one of the millions of people worldwide who may have to face a fall, winter and/or spring without the NBA, it’s disconcerting.

That said, there’s been fair warning. Despite the reminders from all directions that this is only the third extended work stoppage in league history (1995 and 1998-1999 being the previous ones), it’s more enlightening to look at the opportunities for work stoppage. Given that the NBA has never seen a wildcat strike (i.e. a strike during the course of an existing collective bargaining agreement [CBA]), and I doubt it ever would, there have only been four chances since the early 1990s: 1994/1995, 1998, 2005 and 2011. Of those, three have resulted in lockouts, and the other one (2005) was resolved with only a week remaining on the existing CBA. This is keeping in mind that the 1994-95 season was played under a no-strike, no-lockout agreement.

This time period is important because the NBA is a bigger business now that it ever has been. Although profits are flagging from many owners’ perspectives, the amount of money involved has increased massively since the league’s explosion in popularity 30 years ago. As a particularly stark example, compare the 1994-95 salary cap of $15.9M to the salary of some individual players now.

As an aside, I might add that the popularity boom of the early 1990s occurred largely due to the efforts of league commissioner David Stern and superstar players like Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing and Shaquille O’Neal. While NBA and NBPA members have both contributed to the current mess, both sides are responsible for the stakes being so high in the first place. Feel free to thank them at your leisure.

So the NBA and NBPA have managed to reach a work stoppage pretty much any time they’ve had the chance. Relations between the two have ranged from Stern and NBPA head Billy Hunter’s much-publicized shouting match during the 1998-99 fiasco to the calm handshakes we’re apparently seeing now. “Basketball-Related Income” (BRI) has become the new buzzword, replacing “recession,” “change,” and, of course, the mid-2000s trend of combining celebrity couples’ names into one hideous-sounding word. What’s the solution, though? What will it take to get the owners and players to agree to a deal, and what will it take to stop the media and fans from seething?

We just don’t know.

There aren’t a whole lot of answers I can provide. Don’t be disappointed – not a single writer in my position can. At this point, I’m not convinced Stern, Hunter, or any seasoned arbitrator can either. They can certainly make decisions, right or wrong, and we can see their effects over the course of the new deal, whenever it occurs. That isn’t the definitive answer people want, but that is the nature of collective bargaining.

For context, consider the following: impasse is a natural part of collective bargaining, to the point that it is often referred to as a step in the process. Impasses often lead to work stoppages. These work stoppages have occurred since the founding of modern unions in the late 19th century, and occur in every industry that has unionized workers. Just as basketball players face work stoppages, so too do factory workers and teachers. The only reason this work stoppage is any more publicized is because it affects more people (i.e. fans) and because of how much money is involved.

To which it then flows, why not accept that the NBA and the NBPA might need time to get this right? Any readily available solution would almost certainly result in a clear winner and a clear loser. Interest arbitration would do the same. Given the specialized nature of the work involved, the duration of the typical agreement (many industries have CBAs lasting only a year or two), and the sheer magnitude of the money changing hands, a spoiled management-union relationship is not in anyone’s best interest.

One of the realities of collective bargaining is that neither side can unilaterally push to make things right. For example, if one side offers any of the BRI split suggested in various places on the internet, whether it’s 50/50, 51.8% to the players like the drop-dead worst scenario the owners could stomach back in 1995, or anything else, it won’t end there. All it will do is refocus the bargaining range to the detriment of the side proposing it.

An arbitrator could impose such a figure, and the parties have used arbitration in the past for different CBA-related issues, such as when they agreed to call in John Feerick during the 1998-99 lockout. That’s the problem, though: the NBA and NBPA would have to agree to it. Not only that, but they would have to agree to it in the full knowledge that one of them might have to live with a suboptimal agreement, potentially for as long as six years. I don’t think either side is confident enough to take that gamble and I don’t think either side should be.

Another reality of this particular situation is that no NBA team is publicly traded, and thus, we don’t get to see their balance sheets. Even if we could, I’m not sure that would help. There have been numerous allegations that the losses are exaggerated, although whether they are or not doesn’t change the fact the teams still want the best deal they can get. Even if they’re hypothetically making $50M per season each (and they obviously aren’t), they logically and validly want to at least maintain that profit and hopefully make more. No one enters bargaining with the express intention of giving up ground.

Regarding those allegations, the most prevalent one is centered on the supposed revelation of the New Jersey Nets’ financials from 2003-2006. When the big exposé is a single team’s financials ending five years ago, most of that time occurring under a different CBA from the one that just expired, and with an all-caps admission that some of the material is wrong… all it’s proven is that NBA teams employ competent accountants, and I’d be very concerned about any company of that size that doesn’t.

Many accuse the owners of being greedy multi-millionaires using every tactic possible to squeeze another drop of blood from George Washington’s printed likeness. Many others accuse the players of being spoiled, overpaid children who want to continue to rake in millions for bouncing a ball around while people with more conventional occupations are out of work. Many more are saying both.

I wouldn’t call any of those views completely right. The NBA and NBPA are both so huge that they can barely agree among themselves, let alone with each other. Not all teams are in agreement on issues like the proposed hard cap, for example, and the needs of a maximum-salaried player are far different from the needs of a mid-level exception player or those of someone making the veteran’s minimum. Both sides are at fault, but then again, both sides are responsible for putting out the product that makes us care so much about these negotiations in the first place.

As in almost any conflict that the parties are trying to resolve, there’s no one clearly in the right and no one clearly in the wrong. Arguably even more importantly, there’s a reason the parties think the conflict is worth resolving in the first place. Barring a deluge of information and authority that no one in the world possesses, none of us can say for sure what the new agreement should entail.

There are two things the owners, players, media and fans can agree on. This isn’t to even begin to mention all the non-basketball companies whose profits depend on the NBA – or did you think sports drink manufacturers and compression shorts distributors would come out of this looking okay? One is that this lockout is as big as advertised, and should be treated as such. The other, and the more important one, is that I think everyone would like to be able to talk a little less about the nuances of collective bargaining and a little more about an upcoming 2011-12 season.

Here’s to hoping.

 

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