Public pressure is mounting on the players' union like never before to lower its request for 52 percent of basketball-related income and force owners to end the NBA lockout. Even-handed, experienced columnists like David Aldridge have written that the union has essentially no choice but to drop to the league's offered 50-50 deal, lest it get worse for players. Internal union sniping hasn't helped: dueling stories on a rift between Derek Fisher and Billy Hunter only serve to weaken the players' case. No one can honestly believe that a point of power for Hunter or Fisher at the expense of the other at this point helps the players get the best deal possible.
But the most interesting pressure has come from a group that can truly commiserate with NBA players: members of the National Hockey League's players' union. NHL players lost the entire 2004-05 season to a lockout; they ended up being forced to take the crummy offer that Gary Bettman and the owners pushed all along. Holding out cost NHL players an entire season of salary and resulted in a labor loss.
One of the NHL players' union's strongest voices for holding out for a fair deal in 2004 was Bill Guerin, then with the Dallas Stars. He told Mac Engel of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram last month that the fight wasn't worth it.
"I learned a big lesson: It's not a partnership. It's their league, and you are going to play when they want," he said.
Today, Guerin has hindsight and his experience serves as a giant caution to any player who thinks losing a game, much less an entire season, to this lockout is a good idea. His message is simple: Get what you can; start playing; you are not going to win what you think.
"It is not worth it to any of them to burn games or to burn an entire year. Burning a year was ridiculous," Guerin said. "It wasn't worth me giving up $9 million a year, or 82 games plus the playoffs, then having a crappy year and being bought out ... Guys in the NBA making $15 million or however much better think long and hard about this."
That's a tough pill to swallow for NBA players who have already shown a willingness to lose games in the fight over about $100 million per season. As NBA players and their advocates have argued, this fight isn't just about this season, next season or 2015. Wherever the revenue split ends up at the end of this lockout, that's where it begins in the next collective bargaining talks. It's never going back up to 57 percent.
This has to be the question that NBA players volley back to their NHL brethren, and their brothers in the NFL and Major League Baseball, too: how do we stop this? If we can't win, how can we survive?
The NFLPA signed a 10-year deal with the league, which means that players can't lose any more ground until 2021. That's probably smart. But look at the NHL. Next summer, the lockout headlines will likely, sadly belong to them. Hockey players ended up giving away everything owners wanted in 2005, and they'll be asked to give up more in 2012. How does the cycle end? Instead of the resignation Guerin expresses -- "it's their league" -- players have to find a way to institutionalize their power.
The NBA, with its strong focus on stars and concentrated talent, would be in better position than any other to accomplish this. But the problem is that it has to get nasty before the lockout begins. Billy Hunter reportedly threatened David Stern with a hold-out at the 2011 NBA All-Star Game in Los Angeles. In the locker room with Stern and the assembled All-Star teams, Hunter -- pissed that the league wouldn't really negotiate with him on labor issues in the run-up to the obvious lockout -- said he considered telling the stars not to play in L.A. But he didn't follow through, and instead used the moment to embolden his players and stick Stern with a bit of fear.
Next time, the players need to follow through, maybe not by walking out of the All-Star Game, but by making a very public display at some point in the season before a labor battle to get their point across. Perhaps the best thing the players can do is relinquish (relatively) minor concessions in exchange for potentially huge handovers in the future. If the players accept 50-50 right now, will owners agree to increase that split to 51 percent when the new national TV contract comes in for 2016 and beyond? Can national TV revenue be split differently than total revenue -- 53 percent to players for national TV revenue, 47 percent to players for everything else -- to the point where, eventually, players win? (This wouldn't be a great deal for players until 2016. At that point, it could be amazing.) The players need to create situations in which they stand to win in the middle of a collective bargaining agreement. The 1999 deal did this beautifully: by capping max salaries and assigning players a big chunk of league income, salaries shot up for mid-rung players. The unintended consequence bolstered the players' position. That lasted 13 years. That's no small matter.
Yes, if the players accept 50 percent, that's where the next talks will start. But the league will want to negotiate other items, too. If the players and their smart team of experts can build a prosperous situation while taking 50-50, they'll be in stronger negotiating position next time around.
Barring that or a public display of protest during a future season, the only way sports unions will stop the labor bleeding is by going through with anti-trust litigation to the bitter end. The NBA won't be doing that this time around, the NFL is 10 years away from another fight, and MLB and NHL players would have a difficult argument to make given extensive minor leagues in their sports. If a blow-out decertification/anti-trust battle ever happens, it might have to come from NBA players the next time the league institutes a lockout.
But first, let's solve this one. NHL players might be right in arguing that it's time to settle.
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