Owners, players strap in for lockout with no sense of urgency ... yet
This "Decision" makes LeBron's "Decision" charitable and dignified in comparison
Each side believes strongly that if the opposition has its way, the NBA collapses
The hope for fans is that players and owners will find compromise in September
NEW YORK -- The best of times and the worst of times have married and become this one paradoxical time. On Thursday afternoon, three weeks after the least predictable and most entertaining of seasons, the NBA promised to exercise its long-anticipated threat to lock out the players. Instead of building upon the recent success, the league is risking cancellation of the entire 2011-12 season.
Of all the outcomes that created and captivated large mainstream audiences over the past 12 months, this result was most predictable and least welcome. This "Decision'' makes LeBron's Decision' seem dignified and charitable in comparison.
The players and owners had their obligatory last-stab meeting Thursday, during which the players tried to offer a new perspective to resolve the owners' concerns. Instead of dealing with the big issue of how much money you're going to take away from us, the players essentially said, let's restart the negotiations by focusing on other cost-cutting measures.
The two sides broke for private discussions, and then the owners responded by saying the latest offering did not address the core economic issues. The Spurs' Peter Holt, head of the labor relations committee, did much of the talking for the owners, and it was all very respectful from both sides of the table. The players understand the owners' point of view, which is that the players are making much too much money. The owners likewise understand the players' point of view, which is that the owners are losing money because of their own regrettable decisions.
Put this all together and the lockout becomes inevitable. Each side believes strongly that if the opposition has its way, then the league will collapse into ruin.
How long will this go on? Union chief Billy Hunter anticipated that another meeting will be called in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, he and union president Derek Fisher must consider the unlikely option of decertifying and putting their case into the court system, if they believe they can't get a fair hearing from the owners.
The alternative is to continue to talk over the summer with the small goal of finding some minimal terms on which both sides can agree. As the next season approaches and both sides are confronted by real pain -- a loss of income for the players, and a loss of fan support for the franchises should games be canceled -- maybe then there will be a willingness to meet in the middle, with an understanding that their shared business must continue on, even if neither side is particularly happy with the terms.
Or maybe the owners are determined to have their way at the high price of canceling next season, even if that means turning millions of fans into enemies. And maybe the players are unified and stubborn enough to sacrifice an entire season of pay.
The owners can draw on all kinds of anecdotal evidence to show that an extended lockout can be survived. They can focus on how popular the NBA grew to become following the lockout that resulted in a shortened 50-game schedule in 1998-99. They can note that the NHL has recovered quickly from the season-long lockout of 2004-05 that enabled owners to install a hard cap while instantly slashing player contracts by 24 percent. They can also point optimistically to their own ever-improving international market, which provides long-term promise for NBA growth beyond the U.S. The question of the NBA's ability to survive an extended work stoppage at home doesn't take into account the larger goal of eventually creating profitable markets around the world.
The owners say it's this simple: 22 teams are losing money because they're spending too much on players. The NBA has been losing money for years, and if that trend isn't arrested then everyone -- including the players -- will suffer.
If they need to sacrifice part of all of the season in order to establish a system that can create long-term growth for everyone while enabling the small markets to compete with the large, then the sacrifice may be worthwhile -- that's their view.
The players contend that intelligence and wisdom can't be legislated. Even if they surrender vast sums of money, will that encourage the owners to run their businesses more efficiently? Or will the dysfunctionality of many teams grow worse if the owners are able to coerce a hard-cap system that guarantees each of them an annual profit?
The players dispute that the NBA is losing $300 million annually, based on the abilities of accountants to make black ink appear to be red. The players insist they shouldn't be held responsible for debt and interest incurred by owners, as well as by the recent financial anomalies created by the recession.
Both sides can point to concessions that have been made in recent weeks. The truth, driven home by the final three-hour meeting here Thursday, is that neither side feels urgency to make the big gesture in pursuit of a deal. To do so now would be to admit surrender, and neither side could sell it to its constituency at this time.
The hope for fans is that the view from both sides of the table may change with the now-or-never sense of urgency that will arrive in September. Maybe then fears of surrender will be replaced by a spirit of compromise.
In the meantime both sides will be hated amid accusations of greed. No one will escape unscathed.
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