David Stern Wields NBA Lockout Like A Weapon, Treats Fans Like Fools

In cancelling two weeks of the regular season, David Stern has taken the NBA lockout on its illogical course right into the wallets of players (again), and is using the fans' desire to see basketball as a PR weapon against the union.

When Billy Hunter says that the NBA lockout was "pre-ordained" to get here, with David Stern cancelling real live regular season games, it's hard to disagree. If you were to draw up a gameplan for the owners and Stern to get to a missed paycheck while looking like they actually tried, it'd look a lot like what we just lived through: months of apathy, maximum confusion leading up until the end, a fatal fight on what is in the end some real small bulls--t. (Cancelling two weeks because the union won't approve a very hard cap-ish luxury tax in addition to giving up more than $200 million in annual salary is like flipping the Monopoly board because another player bought Marvin Gardens out from under you ... while you have hotels on all of the green and blue properties.)

It's no surprise that Stern came out aiming to frame the issue -- this is what men in power do, they spin like Techs; this is basically the job of a high-powered lawyer -- but the way he ended up doing it was, well, nasty. He said that the owners made "concession after concession" in the talks. This bugs me so, so much.


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The concessions Stern cites? They were willing to keep guaranteed contracts alive, willing to drop their push for rollbacks on existing contracts and abandoned the hard salary cap concept. 

How generous of the owners to drop three demands that they created themselves in these very negotiations! This is like a 6-year-old demanding three cookies, a bowl of ice cream and a bag of M&Ms. "OK, we'll make a concession on the M&Ms, I'll take three cookies and some ice cream. Hey, I made a concession!" It doesn't work that way. One side is not allowed to "invent" a compromise from the start and claim it has negotiated in good faith to get there.

Ah, "good faith," an odd concept where these talks are concerned. The union argued way back in May that the league lacked good faith in its negotiations, and the players filed a grievance with the National Labor Relations Board to that effect. That complaint is still floating around the bureaucracy, ready to drop in at some point. I don't know exactly how anti-trust litigation works in America these days, where the courts stand on the issue of the NBA as entertainment company vs. sole provider of legit pro basketball in the United States. But, as Hunter said Monday, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck ...

The NBA is sure acting like a monopoly, using its market dominance to make the players squeal. Consider not just the league's history of using missed paychecks like a weapon -- this is the second shortened season in 13 years, and fourth threatened one in 16 years -- but the input from the other providers of professional basketball worldwide. Remember what the CEO of Euroleague said after FIBA officials met with Stern in August and decided to require lockout opt-out clauses in all international contracts signed by NBA players?

"Our clubs need to have stable rosters," [Euroleague CEO Jordi] Bertomeu said via a translator. "They need to know how long they will be able to employ the player. No team will sign a player for only two or three months, or for an uncertain period of time. This is our forecast."

Who knows what Stern and company said to FIBA officials. But after that meeting, FIBA presented its opt-out rule and the chief of the second most powerful league in the world said he didn't think his teams would be renting NBA players. Consider that a month later the Chinese Basketball Association banned players under NBA contract outright, arguing the same position: that rosters need stability. Fortuitous judgments for the NBA, no?

About five dozen NBA players have signed overseas despite the hurdles that the NBA, FIBA and the leagues themselves have created. Five dozen out of 450. But there are just two All-Stars in the mix, and one of those, Tony Parker, is playing for a team he has a stake in. Precious few legit NBA players have been able to draw an overseas check, precisely because Stern has been waving his lockout gun all summer. The uncertainty is what keeps the opportunities dimmed. Stern's going to keep on wielding that until the season is lost, two weeks at a time. He's making them squeal from all angles.

If cancelled paychecks weren't pre-ordained, tell me why the league embraced and offered a 50-50 split last week, made a huge show about it in a press conference and then promptly went back to 47-53 this week. Why? There are two possible answers, none of which look good for Stern. There could have been dissension from the owner ranks after that press conference. Or the whole 50-50 split was never intended to be a serious offer, it just served to frame the issue around the greed of the players and a twisted definition of "what is fair."

It worked, too, as it lead to a bizarrely specific campaign from some bloggers and fans to reach a deal that'd give players 51.5 percent of revenue, or the midpoint between the league's 50 percent and the players' 53 percent. Really, the 50-50 charade was Stern again defining his own concessions, telling everyone how fair he was willing to be ... as he kept thousands of people from doing their jobs. The 50-50 charade fits right into the gameplan the union alleges Stern followed from the outset: convince the media you're being reasonable, push blame to the greedy players and pull the lever on the trap door. It'd be impressive if it weren't so infuriatingly naked.

Consider the league's current pitch, which is back to the owners taking 53 percent of the pie, with 47 percent for players, which comes with a luxury tax that looks like a hard cap, limits on use of the Bird rights exception and shorter contracts (which the union conceded). The NBA claims it lost $300 million in the 2010-11 season. Shifting from the old 57 percent players' share to a 47 percent players' share would transfer $400 million from players to owners. Talk to me, David:

"In this economy, at this time, with what's going on in the country and the world ... I'm proud of my owners."

That's a real quote from Stern in the cancellation aftermath on Monday, after the commish had explained how the average NBA player salary would have reason under the owners' proposal. In this economy, at this time, with what's going on in the country and the world ... this dude is proud that his owners, several of whom are billionaires, shut down a $4 billion operation that employs thousands so that they could extract profits from basketball players and harden the salary cap. Are you f--king kidding me? What a noble thing Stern's owners have done! 

***

It's time to consider whether David Stern has been good for the NBA over his quarter-century in charge. The league is experiencing its second shortened season in 13 years, and every labor deal since the mid-90s has come with doomsday talk and the real threat of missed games. (The short 1995 lockout, which ended in September, was a precursor to the painful 1998-99 version. In 2005, a deal was reached so close to the lockout deadline that free agency was pushed back a few weeks.) For all of the talk about the infrastructure Stern has built, look how fast casual fans abandoned the league when Michael Jordan (a player) retired. Look how fast NBC abandoned the league. Look how far ratings fell. You talk about his push to globalize the game, but it's unclear if China will continue to pay attention now that Yao Ming (a player) has retired, with Kobe Bryant (a player) entering the twilight of his career. 

If Stern were a once-in-a-generation talent, he'd be able to run a league that made money, that avoided pissing off its customers at every turn, that actually did what it says on the box, which is produce basketball games. He'd be able to find arena solutions without resorting to glorified extortion. You know, maybe Stern had it in him all along, but just didn't put in the work necessary to be the greatest commissioner. Maybe he just didn't have the internal fire to stand up to his owners and tell them, "No, we're not going to shorten or cancel a season to get a damned hard cap." Maybe he was never as powerful as everyone made him out to be. Maybe we confused curmudgeonly micro-managing authoritarianism for real power and talent. 

Whatever the case, given that right now there is no NBA, he's not doing his job. Even worse, he's keeping others from doing theirs. Shame on him.

Star-divide

The Hook runs Monday through Friday. See the archives.

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