Silent majority of players hold key to swaying labor negotiations
The non-elite players who will suffer the most from a lost season haven't spoken
Their voice carries tremendous weight in warding off decertification … if they use it
It's doubful they'll go against the elite, meaning a 2011-12 NBA season isn't likely
We know the big-market NBA franchises want to get on with the season, and the small-market owners are willing to hold out. We also know at least seven agents and potentially 130 players or more are willing to push the union toward decertification.
As a Wednesday deadline approaches, we have yet to hear from the one -- and most important -- group of these labor negotiations. That voting bloc represents the bulk of NBA players who aren't stars and who will feel the worst pain from a canceled season.
When will we hear from the silent majority?
Maybe these hundreds of players are willing to join with their fellow union members who are seeking a petition to decertify, based on the likelihood that the owners' proposal will mean less money and fewer guarantees going forward. Or maybe they believe this offer of a 51 percent share of all basketball-related income is the best they'll ever be able to negotiate, based on NBA commissioner David Stern's ultimatum to offer a much less attractive deal (47 percent of BRI and a flex salary cap) if the players reject the current offer by Wednesday.
One thing the silent majority has failed to grasp is that it holds the ultimate power in these talks by voting for or against any submitted proposal. The leadership is not inclined to bring Stern's Sunday morning offer to the players for a vote, but the union is certainly going to be listening to its membership. The stance of the union can be changed if a majority of players is willing to force that change.
This much needs to be understood: Stern probably isn't bluffing when he says the offer to players will plummet after Wednesday. Stern has been seeking a deal to save the season ever since the negotiations began. The union has taken note of his willingness to seek compromise during the small-group meetings, with him and deputy commissioner Adam Silver sitting across from the union's executive director Billy Hunter, president Derek Fisher and economist Kevin Murphy.
They have made consistent progress in those low-key talks, only to see that progress reversed when the larger group of owners (and players) brought its diversity of needs into the negotiations. The smaller-market owners are in competition with the larger-market owners for funding. NBA owners are arguing among themselves over revenue sharing and luxury taxes, and ultimately they are arguing over the future of the league.
In the bigger picture, however, the small-market teams are seeking an objective of equality that will always be beyond their reach. Of course they don't want to be outspent by the richer franchises, which is a fair expectation. But the larger markets will always have an advantage in contending for championships regardless of any system that may arrive from these negotiations. Think about it: If the best players are suddenly prohibited from fishing for extra salary from the bigger markets, and they realize their NBA paycheck is limited no matter where they choose to play, then guess where they're going to go? They're going to seek employment with large-market franchises like the Knicks, the Lakers, the Bulls or the Mavericks, because those markets will offer superior earning opportunities off the court.
The goal of preventing the best players from swarming to the biggest cities is bound to backfire on the less-rich teams. The smaller-market franchises may become profitable across the board, but will that make them more attractive to the best players?
As Princess Leia once told a minion of Darth Vader: "The more you tighten your grip, the more star systems will slip through your fingers." (I had to look that one up, just so you know.) The smaller markets may look back on these negotiations and realize they created more incentive than ever for the stars to leave for the brighter lights elsewhere.
The variety of needs and demands among his owners has made it difficult for Stern to find room for compromise. It may not make sense for him to essentially be threatening the end of the season by Nov. 9. Indeed, the evidence suggests he doesn't want to blow it up. On the contrary, he is trying to come up with a formula that carries a chance (slim as it is) of satisfying a majority on each side of the table.
The players should understand those complexities, because their union has its own differences of opinion. The deadline dilemma now facing the players is whether the threat of decertification will lead to a better offer from the owners, including the small-market coalition reportedly led by Charlotte's Michael Jordan. The decertification group is energized, organized and headed by some of the NBA's strongest players and agents. They have been arguing for months that the powerful threat of decertifying would force all the owners to seek compromise based on a newfound respect for the players.
Will we quickly see a leader emerge to represent the silent majority of players? They have been given four days by the owners in which to come together, decide whether they can live with this offer and force a vote of the membership.
This is a longshot, in my opinion. I don't believe a majority of the players can pull this off. They may want to play, in order to rescue this season and their incomes and avoid the long-term, self-destructive harm to the NBA that will certainly follow a canceled season. But they aren't the leaders of their teams or their league, and they have been headed off by the bloc of decertifiers.
My best guess is that the players will refuse the proposal offered by Stern. On Thursday, the owners will reduce their offer, making it more difficult than ever for the players to reach a deal. The abject failure of the two parties to find unity among themselves -- for if they can't agree among themselves, then how can they ever create enough room to compromise with the opposition -- will lead to a greater push to decertify, resulting in murkiness and uncertainty amid one probable outcome.
More likely than not, there will be no NBA season in 2011-12.