National Basketball Association players, like their N.F.L. counterparts, have now been “locked out” by team owners, putting the 2011-12 season in jeopardy. But other than the presence of a lot of very angry athletes, there are few similarities between the two conflicts. In the N.F.L., the owners want a longer season and even higher profit margins. They claim future losses but refuse to open their books and prove it.
The situation in the N.B.A. is a much stinkier kettle of fish. The N.B.A. just completed its most profitable season ever. Driven by fan interest around LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and the Miami Heat, among other attractions, the league pulled in a record $4.3 billion in revenue. Last off-season, $2.5 billion was spent on contracts. Attendance was the fifth-highest total in league history. Despite all of this, twenty-two of the thirty teams in the league claim to have lost money this past season. And Commissioner David Stern has opened the books to prove it to the player’s union.
It’s all very bizarre. How can record profits and financial hardship coëxist?
One answer is the economy. Owners are getting less in public subsidies than had been projected before the bottom dropped out in 2008. But the true answer lies in understanding the mindset of the typical N.B.A. owner, many of whom seem to have the impulse control of an Adderall addict armed with a lighter in a fireworks store. The league-wide losses, which Stern pegs at $200 million, can be put at the feet of awful contracts that teams have given older players. It’s guaranteed money that has to be paid long after a player’s value has expired.
To take one example: the highest paid player in the N.B.A. next year won’t be LeBron, Kobe, Dirk, or any of the icons that rule the league. It’ll be Rashard Lewis, a player who was signed to a $118 million contract four years ago with Orlando and never earned that kind of money on the court. (He’s no longer even with the team, having been traded to Washington.) The owners argue that there is no mechanism for them to “get out” from under these kinds of bad contracts. Yet no one put a gun to their heads when they offered this money in the past.
The owners want the union to agree to a hard salary cap enforced across the league, “guaranteed profits for each team,” and the freedom to escape from these lousy contracts. In other words, they want the union to help them exercise the fiscal discipline they are unable to exert themselves.
Atlanta Hawks center Etan Thomas said to me yesterday as the lockout loomed that “most union negotiations start from the existing contract. David Stern has started from the point of a fantasy Christmas list. No guaranteed contracts. A hard salary cap. Drastic concessions. Guaranteed profits … as if we have control over the broader economy. We have been open to renegotiating how we divide revenue. But instead they showed up with this Christmas list of anti-union wishes that would have hurt not just players but the game of basketball.”
Thomas makes the point that if the owners most fevered wishes come true, teams will have a couple of superstar players that make a fortune and then ten guys fighting over the crumbs. “Basketball without a middle class is a game where people are playing selfishly, trying to pad their stats at the expense of the team because there is no security,” he said.
Since the last lockout, in 1999, the conventional wisdom has been that players would always lose labor conflicts because time is not on their side. They need to play when their bodies are in their primes. (Owners have more ability to wait it out.) Or some people have suggested that players lead the kinds of profligate lifestyles that demand consistent game checks. But this time it seems different. This current crop of players, faced with a lockout, have adopted a resolute determination not seen in decades.
Fifty players showed up to negotiations last week wearing the same bright yellow T-shirt that read “STAND.” David Stern was not amused, but the players are solid.
As Derek Fisher, president of the National Basketball Player’s Association, said, “We will not accept a bad deal that is not fair to our players. We’d love to avoid a lockout, but we are unified in the sense of not being afraid if that’s what we’re faced with.”
Etan Thomas also described to me how schooled the younger players are on the game’s past. “There’s a stereotype that athletes don’t know their history,” he said. “But I talk to these guys and they know about Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Spencer Haywood. They know about the players who refused to take the court for the 1964 All-Star Game unless the union would be recognized. They all paved the way and fought for this league to reach the level it is now, and we respect that. We cannot take all of their hard work and throw it down the drain.”
For hoops fans, we should hope that the National Labor Review Board ends the lockout, per the request of the N.B.P.A., that the two sides pound out a long-term deal, and that owners start to practice the very self-discipline that the league preaches to its players. That would truly, to use the playground vernacular, be money.
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 email@example.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.