The NBA Lockout Goes Nuclear, And The Players Did The Right Thing

As the NBA Players Association voted to disband on Monday, David Stern told America that the NBA has entered into a 'nuclear winter.' But if they put the 2011-12 season in serious jeopardy, it's simply because the players had no other choice.

The NBA lockout has seen enough twists and turns and standoffs and red herrings to keep us all in suspense for the past few months, but what happened Monday really wasn't that dramatic. The NBA players opted for the only choice that made sense.

It was up to the players to strike back or risk getting slaughtered, and they chose the former, disclaiming interest the players union, stepping away from a bargaining table where only one side was bargaining, and taking the initial steps toward attacking the NBA in court. There's still a chance the union decertifies altogether, adding more lawyers and more teeth to the players' legal challenge.

All this puts the 2011-12 season in serious jeopardy, yes. But it also provides a welcome change of pace. Not just in this lockout, but in the context of pro sports labor negotiations, in general.

Everyone has trouble thinking of professional athletes as victims. They are paid more than we are, our wildest dreams are their reality, and their worst case scenario is still the best case scenario for 99.9 percent of everyone else. There are plenty of rational reasons to have trouble sympathizing with aggrieved superstars. But that doesn't mean it's rational to expect them to be browbeaten without fighting back.

For the players to win a legal battle, it will take a favorable judge, some exhaustive work from the players' litigators, and a whole lot of patience. But this isn't some kneejerk negotiating gimmick. The owners have been using the threat of a lockout as a weapon all along, and the players had no other choice but to sink to their level.

And if there was any doubt about why and how we got here, no less than David Stern personified the problems on Monday afternoon. Not 30 minutes after the players opted to disband the union, it was Stern who took to national television oozing with condescension and contempt.

As he said on ESPN: "They decided, obviously having been hopped up by Mr. Hunter and the lawyers brought in, that this was a good negotiating tactic. And that's all it is. This is a negotiating tactic. You don't get exactly the deal that you want, and you sue. But it's not gonna work. If they were gonna do it, they should have done it a long time ago. ... But they seem hellbent on self-destruction."

Later, when the anchor asked how he'd explain the news to disappointed basketball fans, Stern answered: "The fans can think that we were very close, and the players decided to blow it up." It was just perfect. No quote captures Stern's breathtaking audacity quite like that one.

This is all the players' fault, Stern tells his paying customers. They just refused to negotiate. 

We've already outlined the broader, illogical dynamics driving the NBA lockout, but apart from all the numbers and rhetoric, it essentially comes down to the owners' all-encompassing entitlement. But even worse, Stern believes he's entitled to shaping the narrative in all this. In other words, not only can he and the owners erase 60 years of economic progress for the players, but they will rewrite the history as they go. And worst of all? A lot of smart people believe him.

As Ian Thomsen writes at Sports Illustrated on Monday: "For the NBA owners and players to shut down their league during the worst economic times in more than 60 years has got to be the dumbest thing they could imagine doing." And ... Wait a second. Wait wait wait wait wait wait, WAIT.

It wasn't the players who shut down the league. It was the players who offered 2.2 billion dollars to play, and then were told they had to offer more. It was the players who raised their offer to 3 billion, and then were told they had to agree to a whole other battery of concessions.

No, if there's sincere regret this year, it'll be when the owners give back millions of dollars in TV and sponsorship money, then pay a full staff of team employees with no revenue coming in. And for the first time in months, the players have forced the owners to reconcile with that reality. Unless they change course, not only will owners collectively forfeit billions, but they can expect to go to court and risk the future of their billion dollar assets.

For instance: How excited do you think the NBA would be to have their financial claims audited in federal court? What about when an independent economic expert weighs in on LeBron James' free market value? Or when a judge sees the months-long attempt for the players to negotiate a fair deal before opting for litigation--are we sure it'll be seen as a negotiating gimmick, then?

More than any league on earth, the NBA grows as a symbiotic organism with its superstars; a partnership where the players and owners share in the responsibility for growing the game. But it's a partnership where one side owns all the equity; so how could it possibly make sense to then split revenue 50-50? Stern and the owners have demanded that all along, and that's audacious enough. But they've also demanded it while painting the players as a bunch of greedy, uncooperative fools. Just look at the way Stern handled SportsCenter on Monday.


Just last week, even after the players capitulated to a 50-50 deal and agreed to eliminate the owners' annual economic risks, the owners had the arrogance to demand system changes that would eliminate their managements risks just the same. That's when their attitude was really laid bare.

"Competitive balance" is just code. The owners want shorter contracts to protect themselves from making foolish long-term investments. They also want to make it harder for superstars to change teams with a more rigid salary cap. In other words: On one hand, more player movement. On the other, restricted player movement. It's the NBA's bargaining strategy in a nutshell.

The owners own the bakery, they want rights to half the cake, and they want to eat it all, too.

From day one, the lockout's been wielded like a sword hanging over the players' head. The owners wanted an eye for an eye on every front. Everything that happened in the past few years--LeBron James leaving Cleveland, teams losing money, max contracts turned sour--the owners have sought to fix without breathing a word of compromise. The negotiations have been a monologue drenched in condescension, vague threats, and ominous deadlines.

Maybe it's true that players missing a season's worth of paychecks equates to mutually assured destruction, but you can only get pistol whipped for so long before you reach for a gun. There's no guarantee that a legal challenge does anything but prolong the inevitable massacre, and no doubt, if there's no basketball played this year, then everybody loses.

But what Stern and the owners have been doing is so wrong that whether the players succeed or not, fighting back is right. And a day after everybody lost in the NBA lockout, I'm reminded of a movie from the 1980s--Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing. It fades to black with two quotes on screen. 

The first is from Martin Luther King, Jr.:

"The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather than to convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends by defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers."

The second is from Malcom X:

"I think there are plenty of good people in America, but there are also plenty of bad people in America and the bad ones are the ones who seem to have all the power and be in these positions to block things that you and I need. Because this is the situation, you and I have to preserve the right to do what is necessary to bring an end to that situation, and it doesn't mean that I advocate violence, but at the same time I am not against using violence in self-defense. I don't even call it violence when it's self-defense, I call it intelligence."

The players' future may be uncertain now, but the past five months left them no other choice. If a violent lawsuit engulfs the NBA season, then yeah, we'll miss watching the NBA this year. But don't blame the players for finally defending themselves. That's just called intelligence. 

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