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David Stern's NBA Lockout Optimism, And The Optics Of Progress

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As the NBA lockout wears on, David Stern suddenly looks more optimistic than his union rivals. What's that tell us about how things are really going? Also, how we can blame George W. Bush for all of these lockouts. Want The Hook delivered to your Facebook News Feed daily? Like SB Nation NBA.

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One of the biggest questions coming out of the weekend NBA lockout talks -- other than where Ben Gordon buys his business-casual hoodies -- was why NBA commissioner David Stern seemed so optimistic compared to players' union officials. Stern, one of the most dour men you'll ever see in the wild, puffed up the positives from the talks, even saying that the two sides were "closer than they were before." (How's that for exceeding modest expectations?) But Billy Hunter and Derek Fisher from the National Basketball Players Association were far less willing to assign progress to the talks. Hunter noted that the sides remained "miles and miles apart" and said that the league hadn't proposed anything the union could agree to.

On a specific topic, Stern claimed he had union buy-in on the league's revenue sharing plan on Friday; by Saturday, Hunter was telling the media that the revenue sharing pitched by owners was "insignificant." (It reminds of Stern once calling $100 million in salary rollbacks offered by the union "modest.") They can't even agree if they have solved one of the three major problems they are trying to solve! This is the lockout, folks.

But it begs the question: why? Why is Stern indicating progress while the union's leadership runs from the idea of optimism? What's in this for each side? 

The answer is complicated by both sides potentially being accurate. You can be "closer than you were before" and still be "miles and miles apart." Stern and Hunter aren't lying. They are just choosing to focus on different realities. It's odd for Stern to embrace the optics of hope when he needs the union to continue to cave, lest the season's grave be dug. Fear-mongering is a typical tactic of negotiators with the calendar-based upper hand, which Stern and the league clearly have. Instead, Stern's leaving that to Hunter.

Is Hunter setting expectations low on purpose because he knows he'll have to go to the union with a crummy deal as a last-chance option to get the season started? Is he making success look so impossible so that when a deal does come through, the players will just be glad to get one? Is he still worried about agents sticking their noses into the proceedings and agitating for insurrection, thus needing to make a deal look bleak until the last possible moment?

Is he just being honest?

If so, why is Stern projecting progress? Does he want to give the impression that the league is willing to compromise, if only the players would join them? That'd seem to be the most likely answer: in a situation in which fan angst will soon reach a fever pitch, it's best to look like you're actually doing something. By exuding just a bit of optimism, Stern paints himself and his team in a positive light. For once, he's not the dour one. He's the one bringing the hope. 

Whatever the case, the divergent self-presentations by the most important characters in this narrative are not going unnoticed. We'll see where this takes us going forward. I'd love nothing more than to drop the questions because, hey!, a deal is done.



Since 1995, the four major American sports leagues has had four work stoppages. Every single one has been an owner-directed lockout. Three have come since President George W. Bush took office in 2001, one for each of the NHL (2004-05), NFL (2011) and NBA (2011-?). Before the turn of the millennium, player strikes were as or more common than league lockouts. The year 1994 featured an NHL lockout and an MLB strike; the NHL's players held a strike in 1992, the NBA had lockouts in 1995 and 1998-99 and the NFL had strikes in 1982 and 1987. But in this decade? All lockouts, no strikes.

Is this just a random turn of events, as unions signed deals that become more favorable as pro sports revenue exploded in the new age of TV money? Perhaps. Or, with the American wealthy making unprecedented gains during the age of Bush economics, team owners are pressing for more.

I know that Bush has been out of office for almost three years now, but the bulk of his economic policy -- the shifting of the tax burden from the rich to the middle class -- remains in place due to any number of reasons, not the least of which is the Republican majority in the House. How funny that each pro sports lockout since 2001 has been about shifting wealth upwards, billionaires asking millionaires for more. Is the renaissance of American greed to blame for all of these lockouts? If we continue, as a nation, to use kid gloves on the ultra-wealthy, will this continue unabated? (Thankfully, the NHL seems to have worked out its issues, MLB has been at labor peace for years and the NFL signed a 10-year agreement with no opt-out clauses. The NBA alone is at risk. Awesome.)

It's impossible to know for sure whether the relationship between national economic and tax policy has an impact on team owners' drive for more wealth, but it's too clean a coincidence to ignore.


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