NBA Lockout: Stars Taking Over Negotiations?

As the NBA lockout continues and heads to mediation this week, there remains few signs of hope for a season. Chris Sheridan links to a profile of George Cohen, the man who will be mediating this mess. Cohen’s agency, the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS) boasts an 86% success rate in mediation. So there is hope.

But as Henry Abbott points out in a revealing post on his TrueHoop site, there may be even less hope than anyone thought. When the NBA cancelled 2 weeks of the season after missing their last deadline, many felt that this would only drive a wedge deeper in the two sides. As it turns out, not only is that true, but it might not even be half the story of what is really going on.

Mr. Cohen will be meeting with each side separately on Monday and then Tuesday he will bring the sides together to negotiate. If a deal isn’t done by Tuesday, or at least strong positive momentum, then Commissioner David Stern has said the season will be cancelled through Christmas. In reality, though, it will signal the end of the 2011-12 season. Because these sides are so divided, so contention, that if a deal can’t be done with a mediator now, then it’s going to be a very long time before either side budges.

Many players have been thinking about how they will occupy their time in case of a cancelled season. Whether it’s Delonte West going blue collar and working a 9 to 5, or LeBron James pretending like he’s considering the NFL, or Amare Stoudemire suggesting the players start their own league (good luck), it’s clear contingency is on the player’s minds.

This whole ordeal begs the question, though, of two important issues. One, who is the players’ union looking out for, and two, who is really running things for the players’ side?

These are important questions because a certain answer may illuminate a peculiar dichotomy that speaks to the chasmic divide between all parties. If there isn’t unity within the sides, how can there ever be unity between the sides?

As Henry Abbott’s article seems to imply, there isn’t even an agreement on what the latest offer from the owners is. It’s hard to have labor peace when the sides are speaking different languages. But what’s perhaps even more alarming is the suggestion that perhaps a certain group of players are looking to supersede the union to look out for the best interests of the superstars of the league.

There are precious few solid, indisputable truths in this labor battle. One certainty, though, is that there are two groups of people being hurt most by this. One is the common workers for the organizations. The ticket salespeople, the custodial crew, businesses who rely on traffic from attendance to succeed, etc.

So too, on the players’ side, are the “little guys” being hurt by this. The unproven players, the fringe guys fighting for a job in the NBA, the undrafted free agents looking to make their mark. Think of someone like the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Manny Harris. Manny was working hard on improving his status with the Cavaliers, and if being an undrafted free agent fighting off one incoming class of NBA draftees isn’t hard enough, Manny now stands to have to fight off two classes of fresh talent.

There are guys like Manny all across the NBA who are about to get completely shafted by their union. Sure, the superstars can try to form their own league, or go on a barnstorming tour of the country. They can supplement their income from advertising and other off court opportunities. But what do the little guys have? What is the union doing to look out for their interests? Is fighting against an extra percentage point of basketball related income and resisting changes to mid-level exceptions and other systematic changes really looking out for them?

Of course, none of this is to say the union should ignore the problems of the superstars, either. Everyone is equally entitled to protection from their union. But as time goes on, it’s clear that this labor dispute is all about the stars.

If Abbott’s article is true and Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Kobe Bryant stepped in at the last minute to exert their influence to stop the union from working toward an agreement, that probably says all anyone needs to know.

It goes beyond just those three players. The stars are leaning on their status to reinforce their will on the outcome of these negotiations. And they aren’t afraid to go around the union to do so. Abbott writes:

On Friday, a role player for a middling team got a surprise phone call, from just about the biggest name in the sport — somebody who had never called him before. The message: Hold firm at 53. We’re not caving. Hang in there. It wasn’t the only call of its kind, and when you talk to players now there is religious fervor, around the number 53, and around not giving owners any freebies on the other issues.

As if that’s not bad enough, the owners feel so miffed by the last minute reversal from the players that they no feel like even offering 50% let alone the 52% it would probably take at this point to get a deal done. The stars made their position known, that they are not going to let the union speak for them. They are going to speak for themselves.

The irony is that the union doesn’t seem to be speaking for the little guys right now, either. The union seems instead to be trying to placate the stars while bending to the resolve of the owners. In other words, this whole situation is so messed up that there isn’t even a structure to negotiate out of. Nobody seems to know who is running things and what is best for the “players” as a whole entity.

The same can be said for the owners. They are having their own battle between the haves and the have-nots. What’s good for the Charlotte Bobcats isn’t necessarily good for the New York Knicks.

But the owners are a group of generally like-minded individuals. They are not a union. There is no obligation to the greater good beyond what will or desire they have to see the league’s success trickle down to their own investments. It’s a different fight for the players and for the union. The union must find a way to look out not only for its biggest names, but also for those fighting for their jobs.

The stars are making their move now. Which isn’t to say the players as a whole aren’t unified. It’s not like the little guys are speaking out against what the stars are doing. Maybe they don’t feel they can speak out against them, or maybe they truly feel that the things the stars want will be better for everyone anyway. After all, 53% of the BRI is better than 50%, it means more money to the players. Of course, with the soft cap system, it just means all that money will continue to go to the stars and the undrafted free agents and other minor role players will continue to have their importance to the league minimized.

Tuesday is the deadline to see how this all plays out. The future of the NBA hangs in a strange balance right now. It’s hard to predict what the league will look like 5 years from now because the fight for power and money has been so bizarre. By the end of the day Tuesday, though, things will begin to come into focus.

  • Lyon

    good points. Lower end players are never going to be taken care of by the Union. The Union will be seen as successful if they can get the top tier guys big contracts, not saying they raised the league minimum from $400k to $700k.

    So really, the low end players are screwed no matter what. I personally would be speaking out against this if I was them, but you know that if they do, they could be blackalled by the Union and the fellow stars of the teams they try to latch onto.

  • Boomhauertjs

    The problem with the system now is that it rewards non-superstars (Joe Johnson, Larry Hughes) with max deals that are equal to the top 10 players. Combined with hard cap, a franchise tag system where a team can pay their top guy $25 million a year (which would not count entirely against the cap) would placate the star players, prevent the Cheat from happening again, and allow the owners to gain some cost certainty.

  • AMC

    If the NFL couldn’t make a deal in mediation before the lawsuits started flying there’s NO WAY the NBA makes a deal in mediation. Jim Rome interviewed David Stern last Friday and Stern was talking about how he was aware of the damage losing a season would do to the league and cited the damage done to the NHL, but also contended the NHL has bounced back. I think Stern and the owners are willing to give up the season to change the complexion of the league and if that succeeds in getting more competitive balance, I give them major props.

  • 5KMD

    “Cohen’s agency, the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS) boasts an 86% success rate in mediation.”

    Wait a second, you mean my federal tax dollars are paying for this crap? God help us. This is one of the reason’s the US is in the mess they are. Let these whiny babies figure this stuff out on their own.

    In the meantime, I suggest the “fringe” players fall back on that free 4 year college degree they all got during their college years to pay the bills, which can’t be very much since I’m sure they have been living within their means.

  • wet_nurse

    the longer the lockout lasts, the more incentive for the owners to crush the union. They have lost their $ already and can only get it back by increasing the value of their franchises. They increase their value by a sweetheart CBA. The days of fan owner are passing us, they need to start making $$$.
    The players, take KG, where is he gonna make his kind of $ outside of the NBA? The players need to stop wanting to be labor hero’s and cut their losses…You guys had a good thing, I don’t blame you for wanting your cake, but Mom and Dad are home and it’s bedtime

  • mike

    i dont get why the players think they can negotiate with the owners directly and get anywhere. the owners, by nature, are professional businessmen. the players, by nature, are not. the players thinking they can successfully negotiate with the owners would be akin to the owners thinking they could beat any group of players on the court, 5 v 5.

  • mgbode

    it’s not surprising the stars are willing to fight this off and go through a season to do it. part of their legacy will be this negotiation as well.

    but, if i was one of those middling players, and a huge name called me. then, i would ask if he could handle my mortgage or my workout bills for the elite training org’s that alot of them go to while the lockout was in place. not that i would expect it, but just to drive home the point that it’s easier for them to say it than the guys on the bottom.

    sad times.