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The NBA's Ship of Fools
Charles P. Pierce
August 14, 1995
"Put six people in a lifeboat and they'll get along splendidly. Put those same six people on a luxury yacht and they'll fight over who has to serve the drinks."
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August 14, 1995

The Nba's Ship Of Fools

"Put six people in a lifeboat and they'll get along splendidly. Put those same six people on a luxury yacht and they'll fight over who has to serve the drinks."

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All right, so Michael Jordan heretofore has evinced the social conscience of a flea, and any comparison of Patrick Ewing to, say, Mother Jones ought to be limited to the fact that she had healthier knees. Nevertheless, we are at a point where a former tele-lecturer in history at Kennesaw State College is accepted not merely as Speaker of the House but as a public intellectual. So let us accept for the moment the notion of Messrs. Jordan and Ewing as knights of labor. Let us also accept for the moment that this whole NBA labor calamity represents something more than the depredations of a platoon of superagents led by David Falk (who happens to represent both Jordan and Ewing). All that having been said, the dispute that threatens the NBA season is uniquely calamitous, because the context in which it arose is unique in professional sports.

Over the past decade, the NBA has been spared the labor strife that sorely beset the other three major sports. This has been universally attributed to the cooperation between management and labor that was forged during the days in the late 1970s when the NBA didn't have enough future to throw to a cat. As baseball's management stubbornly fought for a return to the 1950s, and as the people who ran football and hockey stubbornly fought to stay there, the NBA sailed blithely ahead, unaware that it was deluding itself.

Which was perfectly fine with commissioner David Stern and the men who own the NBAs teams. For them, the illusion of partnership not only was useful within the league but also was a public relations bonanza outside of it, particularly when every other professional sport seemed hell-bent on devouring itself. However, over the past year Stern has leaped enthusiastically into the tiny shoes left behind on the national stage by Bud Selig. Stern locked his erstwhile partners out and tried to ram through a crackpot "luxury tax" so plainly absurd that it didn't last much longer than Jordan did at the bargaining table. The Players Association was caught flat-footed, having mistaken a temporary truce for a lasting peace.

With only 16% of the workforce unionized in a downsized America, it may come as some surprise that the relationship between labor and management is fundamentally adversarial. God knows, baseball understands that simple truth. Consequently, the baseball strike at least had the benefit of clarity, no matter how much romantic mush about The Game came pouring out of baseball's kept press. Because the NBA had so much of its institutional identity wrapped up in this illusory compact between the league and its players, the league was blind to its single greatest flaw.

The NBAs tight relationship with its players was developed in extremis, with survival as its only purpose. Put six people in a lifeboat and they'll get along splendidly. Put those same six people on a luxury yacht and they'll fight over who has to serve the drinks. Ultimately, the relationship between labor and management in the NBA worked during the lean years, but it was not designed to withstand prosperity. For example, much of the current wrangle began when the Players Association tried to get a piece of the league's licensing and overseas broadcasting fees. Neither set of fees was included among revenues of which the players received a percentage, largely because nobody had envisioned a day when the league would be able to sell game jerseys to every Tom, Dick and Stojko on the planet.

This institutional blindness also accounts for the preposterous hiring of Simon Gourdine as the union's executive director. Gourdine was previously employed by the league as a deputy commissioner, and events have shown that his hiring gave Falk's insurgency one more issue—that Gourdine was a management mole—to use in attacking the union's credibility with its rank and file. Consequently, when negotiations broke down last Thursday—the day after Gourdine had announced a Tuesday deadline after which he intended to chloroform his own union—he looked like a man who'd been rolled by those who had been pushing for decertification all along.

At that point, as distasteful as it may be, Falk and his high-profile clients had captured the Balkanized labor side of the NBA. They appeared to be on the brink of wrecking a season, destroying a historic players' union, setting back the process of collective bargaining about 25 years and making damned fools of themselves. The fact that the NBA has filed unfair labor practice charges against the dissident faction leaves no doubt that the Falk faction is the NBAs true adversary now, the Players Association having abandoned that role in the false spring of the 1980s. Say what you will about Falk, even opportunists need opportunities. You don't even have to be a former tele-lecturer in history to know that.