David Stern and the owners face an impossible dilemma in the NBA lockout: how do you crush a union made up of stars you depend on completely? The P.R. ramifications from the 1998-99 lockout still haunt the NBA, something not lost on Stern but seemingly unsolvable nonetheless.
David Stern and his 29 franchise owners have one real goal in this NBA lockout: substantial economic reform. The league wants to slash player salary to guarantee profits for all 29 franchises, and we're in the process of finding out how far the NBA is willing to go to get that. As has been repeated like an alarm clock buzzer in this space, the real deadline is sometime in September, when the regular season schedule could conceivably be impacted. (If you push the deadline to October 1, you're giving teams four weeks to execute free agency, training camp and an abbreviated preseason schedule. That's dicey.)
So anything that happens now is just groundwork. The two sides will move closer together by some margin, and the boulders that seem dangerous today will eventually look like pebbles. That doesn't diminish the actual importance of each boulder -- this lockout is a living, evolving thing that changes its shape and course daily. Enough boulders moving toward one end will make the path to "victory" more feasible for the other. Yet they don't actually mean anything by themselves.
But while these travails serve as the foundation for the eventual resolution of the lockout, they also serve another important, regrettable purpose: they become part of the fabric of how the viewing public sees the NBA and its stars.
This is best illustrated by Patrick Ewing's infamous quote from the 1998-99 lockout.
"Sure, we make a lot of money, but we spend a lot, too."
NBA players didn't need help informing the public that many of them live very luxurious lives. But Ewing provided it anyway. In the end, that widely circulated soundbite was just a blip in terms of finding a lockout resolution. Maybe not even that. It certainly wasn't a substantive break in the negotiations -- it was a P.R. gaffe that maybe weakened the union's position two taps if we're being generous. The impact of that quote was not found at the negotiating table.
It was found in the fabric of how the viewing public sees the NBA and its stars.
With the 1998-99 lockout came the grand demonization of NBA players. David Stern didn't implement this as a program or strategy -- certainly not. The owners didn't campaign to paint their stars as monsters, at least not on a wide, organized scale. (If the News International scandal has taught us anything, it is that we should not underrate the depths to which otherwise reasonable humans will sink to in order to win at business.) Who painted NBA players as greedy, out-of-control scallywags? The circumstances, some sections of the press and -- to a small but evident extent, as evidenced by Ewing's quote -- the players themselves.
The NBA knows the damage that the lockout did to its players and, by very obvious association, the league. Stern knows this better than anyone. He's fought the results of the damage for the past decade. A 2008 poll by ESPN The Mag found that Americans believed that NBA players were more likely than other athletes to disrespect fans and cheat on their wives, and half the respondents said they thought what was happening to the league was a shame. Some of that is race: the NBA is the blackest league in major pro sports (though not ahead of the NFL by much) and, unlike football, the heavily star-based hierarchy and lack of helmets leaves basketball players rather naked to the discerning (and perhaps discriminating) public.
But at the NBA's headquarters, they believe the lockout damaged the reputation of NBA players as a group. Ewing's quote was just the first log in the fire; fellows like Latrell Sprewell have added kindling over the years. What Stern can't escape is that the circumstances set this up. The very root of the NBA's argument in the lockout negotiations is that its players make too much money. There is no way around that as the centerpiece of the NBA's opinion: NBA players are overpaid.
"Overpaid" is a hop from "lazy" and three skips from "bum." Enough idiots will fill in "thug" on their own. It's a crisis for the NBA, who can't break through the barriers as America's No. 3 sport without diminishing these attacks on the league's stars to a murmur.
This lockout? It ain't helping. And it won't help. As Stern's need for vociferousness increases as we inch toward October, the rhetoric almost assuredly has to rise. And when it does, the worst in commentary about these well-paid but, as a class, noble players will explode. Not from Stern, not from a collection of owners. But from columnists. From angry fans. From angry non-fans who love the sound of their own voices.
Greedy, selfish, heartless. The league can survive hearing these insults slung at the franchise owners. But when they are aimed at the players, that's trouble, and not just for today and tomorrow but for decades.
And that's the impossible dilemma Stern and the owners face: how do you crush a union made up of stars you depend on completely? The NBA has done a solid job avoiding demonization to this point. But can it last?