Lockout fever! Catch it! First, The Hook wonders if players ought to be more vocal at home rather than gallivanting around Asia. We also talk to Dave Zirin about labor struggles in America, brinkmanship and the potential for an NBA bubble.
THE LOUDEST PROTEST
Ken Berger has been covering this NBA lockout like a laminate, digging in with critical questions and (usually) sensible solutions. (We ain't ever going to agree on contraction, bub.) This week, he took the public events headlined by Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul in the Far East to question the players' lack of vocal displeasure with the situation at home. A snip:
But for the most powerful and influential stars in a sport that is locked out, I wonder what all of these appearances, globe-trotting promotional tours and threats of signing with rinky-dink overseas teams are doing for the strength and resolve of the players association and its ability to unleash strong, meaningful voices against the owners' demands. Why have the loudest voices in the sport suddenly gone silent?
An agent concurs (anonymously), and a contrast is drawn between the NFL players and these NBA stars. Never mind that it's early in the game to be questioning the players' commitment to their union: the entire run-up to the lockout was a display of bullheadedness from both sides of the equation. My concern with this criticism is more that getting out in public, talking down the owners doesn't really matter.
This is not a PR battle. This is a money battle. Unlike the debt ceiling talks, there is no election at the end. No one has to convince the public that they are right and the other guys are greedy megalomaniacs. This is about making the other side squeal, about landing the punch that changes the fight. A rally in Manhattan that includes a loquacious superstar like Chris Paul, as thrilling as it may be for those of use glued to our periscopes, wouldn't do a thing to change the course of negotiations.
You think these owners care about the PR implications of the lockout? The league definitely cares, and David Stern has been a veritable churchmouse. (So far.) The union's leadership cares; not an iota of anger comes across in most Derek Fisher or Billy Hunter interviews. But the owners? This is 100 percent about adjusting the system in their favor; some need it for survival, others to justify their investments in the league. PR victories be damned if you can get $500 million in salary concessions.
This is a real battle for money, and the best thing the players can do individually is not try to sway a skeptical, bored and annoyed public. The best thing the players can do is show the NBA that they do not need the NBA. Deron Williams showed his new boss that he can make money without a Nets jersey. Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose made a reported $400,000 each to play two exhibition games in the Philippines. The NBA nor those players' teams saw a dime. You think Jerry Buss, Clay Bennett and Jerry Reinsdorf like to see that?
Imagine if Kobe pulls the trigger. The Turkish team courting Bryant put the odds of landing him to join D-Will at 50-50. So let's adjust that to a 10 percent chance for realism's sake. A one-in-10 chance to have Kobe Bryant playing in the Turkish league? That will kill Buss' will to fight this lockout. That will actually matter.
Players should keep on doing exactly what they are doing, and at least one or two more big-name stars need to join Williams overseas (sooner rather than later) to tilt the court. The NFL lockout was about owners digging for more cash when the game has made them flush with it ... a border skirmish, essentially. The NBA lockout is a flat-out ground war. You don't fight that with speeches and smiles. You go for blood, which is what players are doing right now. As long as it isn't one giant bluff that the league calls, it's going to do damage. Just wait.
WORDS WITH FRIENDS: DAVE ZIRIN
Today, The Nation's issue on sports hits newsstands. We thought we'd take the opportunity to talk to Dave Zirin, The Nation's regular sports columnist and the author of Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining The Games We Love and A People's History Of Sports In The United States. As you can tell, our ideologies about the NBA lockout are pretty similar. To the chat!
TZ: This year has seen organized labor under attack, with Wisconsin being the central flashpoint in terms of wide public awareness. But the American public has also been confronted with an unprecedented double-whammy with the NFL and NBA lockouts. You wrote last week that the NFL lockout was "about the arrogance of Capital in a period of austerity." Do you feel that applies to the NBA version as well? The league would argue that it's doing this to guarantee its survival.
DZ: The root of the problem is a viral, mutating, economic contagion that affects both sports and public sector workers. Our private, international banking system almost collapsed in 2008, bailed out with $20 trillion in public money. This saved the banks, but the people have been left with the bill. That means massive cuts in public services (the heart of the debate on the debt ceiling is how many trillions to cut), attacks on public sector employees and the drying up of public subsidies for stadium construction. That last piece -- public subsidies -- has been, along with TV money and luxury boxes, the foundation of the economy of sports. NFL owners said explicitly that the reason they needed a new CBA was that they were getting less public stadium revenue than they hoped. In the NBA, the crisis in profitability is more acute, no question. But in both cases, the message from owners is the same and it mirrors the broader message from D.C. and Wall Street: "The party is over and we'll be damned if we have to pick up the tab."
TZ: Does the fact that some NBA teams (not all, but some, like the Warriors) are going for mammoth prices on the market add fuel to that? The NBA is trying to make the seemingly impossible case that despite there being obvious demand to get into the league from billionaires, it's a losing proposition. And that ties in with the reports that some teams will lose less money by canceling a season than playing under the old system: some teams can win by essentially folding for a year, while Joe Lacob finances a $450 million investment in a team with one playoff berth in 17 years. Is team ownership, at least in the NBA, a huge bubble ready to pop?
DZ: It's well known that David Stern promised the Joe Lacobs, Mikhail Prokhorovs and others that there would be a labor deal coming soon that would ensure the profitability of their wildly bloated investment. We've seen the bubble pop in baseball, in L.A. and with the Mets in particular, but in basketball it comes down to whether revenue sharing will ever be a part of their economic model as it is in football. What the Lakers make in one year of their television deal, the Trailblazers make in 10. Forbes made a compelling case that while 17 of the 30 teams may have lost money, the overall profitability of the league (unlike what David Stern says) is strong.
TZ: It seems like the NBA will certainly follow the NFL's example of brinkmanship, taking it to the final minute if not beyond. We're seeing it at the federal level with the debt ceiling negotiations, too. Is this level of brinkmanship becoming more commonplace in all sectors of the public interest, or are we just able to pay closer attention? And if so, does labor -- the NBA players' union, in this case -- have a nuclear option of its own, as far as you can see?
DZ: Brinkmanship is really a function of crisis. The difference between Obama's and De Smith's is that De Smith had something in his pocket that was non-negotiable: the health and safety of the players. For Obama, it looks like everything is negotiable ... but as Obama said himself, Republicans "won't take yes for an answer."
To me the moral is that you better have some steel in your spine if you are going to take your business -- or the U.S. economy -- to the brink of disaster. The NBA players don't have a "nuclear" option like the owners (shutting down the season). But they do have the option of playing overseas. If more and more players follow Deron Williams' lead, it creates leverage. Stern and the NBA could be a victim of their own globalization strategy to grow the game.
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