The NBA lockout took on a different timbre on Monday as top officials from the league and players' union met for the first time since June 30. The lockout had been almost completely unemotional all through July. It was boring, even. That's what happens when absolutely nothing happens. There was a total void of action, and as such a total void of passion.
David Stern changed all that in one fell swoop on Monday.
After leaving a fruitless three-hour bargaining session with two of his owners, his deputy Adam Silver and a cadre of union officials including Billy Hunter and Derek Fisher, Stern responded quickly to a few media questions. One such answer set the tone for at least the next few weeks. From Ken Berger of CBSSports.com:
After saying, "I don't feel optimistic about the players' willingness to engage in a serious way," Stern was asked if he believes the players are bargaining in good faith, or not.
The grim-faced commissioner thought about it for several seconds and said, "I would say not. Thank you."
And there we have it: now both sides have accused the other of failing to negotiate in good faith. Essentially, each party argues that other doesn't mind if the lockout kills the season.
That is, in a word, ridiculous.
There is a legal definition of "negotiating in good faith", and there is a popular definition. It'd be easy to see that it took 31 days for the league and union to get together and argue that neither is negotiating in good faith, that neither has an interest in sitting at the table and looking for progress. But that would be an oversimplification. The real reason for the lack of urgency is that nothing will change in these talks until the first blow lands outside the conference room, in the courtroom. No one will budge until a legal victory forces them to.
With a complaint about the NBA's bad-faith negotiations pending at the National Labor Relations Board pending, why would the players' union cave right now on the massive concessions Stern has sought? Why would the owners move their position before seeing whether the union wins their complaint or decertifies? There's no reason for either side to budge. No one has landed a blow -- you could argue that the players' earning FIBA's approval is at least a small victory, but the NBA essentially didn't contest that fight -- so no one will react.
It's a stand-off, and it'll continue to be a stand-off until the union does something.
That's why the idea that these guys should negotiate with each other in "good faith" is completely overwrought. Good faith flew out the window a long time ago, when Stern laid out the blueprint for this lockout years ago, when Hunter focused on prepping his players for the inevitable instead of finding a creative solution to avoid a stoppage, when the owners told players they couldn't do what they are contracted to do without giving up a whole lot of money first. This is a lockout. That is not a matter to be taken lightly. Why should anyone be generous at the negotiating table at this point?
That's why some of the other things Stern said after Monday's session bothered me a bit more than the "good faith" bit. Again, from Berger:
"We've made several offers, but we don't feel significant movement back," Stern said. "As we pointed out to the players, their last offer, 30 days ago, was to take their (average) salaries from $5 million to $7 million over a six-year period. So there's still a very wide gap between us."
This has been rebuked by the players repeatedly since Stern and Silver first trotted out the line on June 30, and it really does show a lack of respect to fans' intelligence for Stern to trot it out again, 32 days in.
The players' proposal took the most recent 57 percent revenue split, decreased it to 54.3 percent in Year 1 of a new six-year deal, and gradually increased the split in players' favor over the next five years. But it would never reach 57 percent, and it amounted to about $100 million in reduced player salary per season.
Stern can argue it's not enough ... but it was movement from the players. It was a significant salary concession. (We ain't talking nickels and dimes.) The average salary bulls--t line from Stern is based on the rosiest revenue projections possible. What Stern fails to note is that if, under the players' plan, the average salary rises to $7 million, NBA revenues will have risen 40 percent (to more than $5 billion) in six years. It's a purposely twisted remark by Stern aimed to make the union look ridiculous. To those who know better, it makes Stern look ridiculous.
Stern went so far as to use concessions made by NFL players in ending that sport's lockout as justification for the NBA's demands.
"From where we sit, we're looking at a league that was the most profitable in sports that became more profitable by virtue of concessions from their players with an average salary of $2 million," Stern said. "Our average salary is $5 million, we're not profitable, and we just can't seem to get over the gap that separates us."
Comparing the average salary of a league with 53-man rosters and a league with 15-man rosters is the height of absurdity. Let's look at what the NFL players really conceded to end that league's lockout.
Like the NBA, the true revenue split in the NFL was about 50 percent, according to Pro Football Talk. In the NBA, the listed revenue split is 57 percent for players, 43 percent for the league (which also must cover other expenses). But the true revenue split is 50-50: there are a number of revenue streams either partially counted or uncounted in the league's basketball-related income. The league's actual revenue isn't $3.8 billion -- that's the number used to calculate the salary cap, escrow fund levels, maximum salaries and the like. The league's 2010-11 total revenue was $4.3 billion. There's an extra $500 million in revenue sitting around there that the players, under the old system, don't touch.
Player salaries were, according to the NBA itself, $2.17 billion. That's 50 percent of the league's true revenue. So the NBA split and the NFL split were the same pre-lockout.
NFL players eventually consented to a 47-percent minimum share of true revenue with one major asterisk: players get 55 percent of national media contracts. That's where the money is. I have a feeling that if the NBA offered the NFL's current economic system right now, the union would strongly consider taking it (especially considering the league will have a new national TV contract in five years). If David Stern wants emulate the NFL, he needs to put his money where his mouth is.
Otherwise, neither side has much room to talk about "good faith". At least the union's leadership has the decency to be honest with fans.
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