Sports Sermon: The NBA’s nuclear winter

November 17, 2011

When David Stern proclaims the NBA has entered a “nuclear winter,” don’t think he is exaggerating. His apocalyptic language is a testament to the utter breakdown in communications between the players and owners, resulting in their mutual destruction. Now 140 days into this excruciating lockout and nearly one month past the scheduled start of games, we couldn’t be farther from having an NBA season.

The players decertified their union this week and dissolved the only entity the owners were willing to negotiate with, opting instead to put legal pressure on the owners through a slew of lawsuits. Thus, both sides have effectively closed discussions for the time being.

Like a pair of petulant kids still learning how to share, they would rather just pester each other kicking and screaming than actually work toward a solution. All reason and pragmatism has left the realm of the NBA, once a model for growth and innovation in sports.

The potential cancellation of the NBA season cannot be pinned to just one man or a group of owners, as has been the case for much of this saga. Especially considering the actions of this week, the players and executive director of the Players’ Association Billy Hunter must bear an equal, if not majority, share of the blame.

The deal the players so vehemently rejected, without even putting the agreement to a vote, would have seen guaranteed contracts with an increase in average player salary of around $2 million, a 50-50 split of revenue between players and owners, and the persistence of a soft salary cap. On paper, this CBA represents a resounding success for the players in their negotiations relative to previous offers from the owners. Nevertheless, the deal was axed due to “system” issues that curtails teams’ maneuverability in free-agency if they stray over the cap and into the luxury tax.

In other words, the players said “no” to an NBA season because they feared the deal would make it harder for them to be overpaid. Their ignorance jogs memories of retired guard Latrell Sprewell, claiming a three year, $30 million contract offer from Minnesota in 2004 wasn’t enough to feed his family.

Irrational player salaries are part of the fundamental reason why the league finds itself lost between lawyers and arbitrators, rather than wondering if the Mavericks can repeat their title campaign. The issue needs serious reconsideration on both sides, yet instead of considering the thousands of employees who depend on the NBA for their livelihood and the millions of fans around the world that take comfort and excitement from league during the winter months, the players have said that an $8 million average salary isn’t enough. They want to keep suckering teams into bad contracts, despite the obvious mayhem that attitude has brought the league.

Out of touch with reality, the players have not just shunned this deal, but the negotiation process altogether. Stern has already employed harsh tactics, presenting the NBAPA with an ultimatum explicating that the owners’ next proposal would be less favorable if this one was turned down. But the players have decided they are no longer interested in talking.

They’ve gone on the offensive against the owners by self-destructing, a completely nonsensical and ineffective strategy, as now there is nothing left for the owners to negotiate with. Stern claims it will take 30 days after a deal is reached for an NBA season to tip-off, but it could be weeks before we even have players and owners sitting down together again.

Early PR campaigns succeeded in slandering the owners as immoral tycoons, relaxing in a jacuzzi of cash while the fans are left to freeze out in the cold. However, while the owners have hardly proven their innocence, we must now direct our criticisms towards the players. If there is to be an NBA season this year or in the years to come, there must be a fundamental retooling of the negotiating strategy.

At this point, the only way for the lockout to be resolved is for both sides to cease to view themselves as enemies in a zero sum game. They must finally understand that they are on the same team and both are essential to the league’s revival and subsequent survival. Each time they try to undermine each other in the courtroom or at the negotiating table, they dig another hole in the NBA’s grave. The league isn’t dead yet, but sadly the window is closing for the players and owners to set things right.

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