“I don’t know where you were raised, but I lived with rats. I used to kill rats. We had a .22 rifle and we would lay in the kitchen and shoot them on the floor. One thing my grandmother taught me was that if you got a rat trapped, you’ve got to give his ass a way out, because he will fight you if he has to. If you don’t give us a way out, a chance for a compromise, you’re going to get a fight.” An American labor leader made the previous statement last month. It wasn’t a Teamster, United Autoworkers official, or anyone from the public-sector battles in the Midwest. The union in question is the National Basketball Players Association, and the man who promised “a fight” was their executive director, Billy Hunter.
Hunter was referring to the stalled negotiations over a new collective-bargaining agreement for the N.B.A. The current labor deal expires at the end of June; if no progress is made before then—and there hasn’t been much in several months—the league could join the N.F.L. as the second major American sports league whose players (and, of course, fans) are locked out.
There is an extra lacquer of anger and mistrust in the N.B.A. because of the particular commissioner with whom Billy Hunter is negotiating: David Stern. For thirty years, Stern has been arguably the most successful commissioner in all of sports. Having Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan in his league certainly helped, but Stern has taken the N.B.A. from a second-tier attraction to a global phenomenon. In recent years, however, another, utterly implacable side of Stern has emerged.
Fans in the greater Seattle area, who didn’t want to spend three hundred million dollars on a new, publicly funded stadium and lost their team, are familiar with Stern’s vindictive side. (The Sonics were moved to Oklahoma City, where they are now the Thunder.) But never has Stern seemed as unbending, isolated, or arrogant as he does now. Players are warned; complaining coaches are silenced; and negotiating partners are enemies.
Stern, speaking to a room full of N.B.A. stars during All-Star weekend, reportedly said that he knew where “the bodies are buried” in the league—presumably because he had buried some of them himself. “It was shocking,” the Chicago Bulls star Derrick Rose told Yahoo! Sports. “I was taking off my gear, and when he said that, I just stopped and thought, ‘Whoa…’ I couldn’t believe that he said it.”
Then, on April 7th, the N.B.A. referees union announced that they were complaining to the National Labor Relations Board that Stern and the N.B.A. had violated federal law by engaging in unfair labor practices. Their filing includes accusations relating to an “obscene expression” that Stern directed at union negotiators in a January 24th meeting. According to the report, Stern stormed out of the meeting in a rage when the stenographer refused to take his obscenity out of the record.
And there’s the tale of Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy. When Van Gundy told reporters that Stern doesn’t allow dissenting opinions, the commissioner responded, “We won’t be hearing from him for the rest of the season.” He then said of Van Gundy, “I see somebody whose team isn’t performing, whose star player was suspended, who seems to be fraying.”
Most fans could care less about Stern’s attitude—but his state of mind is a problem for the sport of basketball. If he’s not willing to negotiate in a way that shows respect, then there likely won’t be a season in 2011. Stern is pursuing a strategy similar to the one N.F.L. Commissioner Roger Goodell has adopted: demanding wage cuts and claiming financial hardship, while offering players, at best, a limited look at the books. But Stern’s demands extend further. Stern and the owners also want teams to be able to retain players at their discretion, even if their contracts have run their course. This would effectively end free agency and turn back the clock on sports labor relations by decades.
“That’s a dealbreaker,” Billy Hunter told me. “I’m dead set against it, and most players would be as well. This would oppress players. Why was free agency fought for and achieved? You take that away if you have a franchise player tag. We will be just as adamant as not accepting it as we would about not accepting a hard salary cap…. If they continue to put forth the same demands, we are going to find ourselves in the same situation as the N.F.L.P.A.”—the football players, who are still locked out.
In a season where ratings and interest are up, and players like Chicago’s Rose and the L.A. Clippers’ forward Blake Griffin are leaving a new generation of fans breathless, David Stern is practicing his own version of the extreme austerity. But, just as there are no schools without teachers and no fire stations without firefighters, there is no league without the players. No one buys an N.B.A. ticket to watch David Stern. This seems to be a reality he has forgotten—no matter where the bodies are buried.
Dave Zirin is the author of “Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love” (Scribner) and just made the new documentary “Not Just a Game.” Receive his column every week by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact him at email@example.com.