David Stern

There was a sense of inevitability surrounding David Stern’s announcement on Monday that the first two weeks of the regular season have been cancelled. The owners have most likely always intended to make the players lose at least one paycheck so that they understand who is really in charge here. From this point on, how many more paychecks the players lose will be almost entirely dependent on their willingness to give the owners virtually everything they’re asking for.

As far as I can tell, there are three possible sides you can choose in this battle if you care about the good vs. evil narrative:

  • If you’re on the players’ side (and most bloggers and columnists I’ve read appear to be on their side), you believe that the players deserve to make all that money, that they shouldn’t be blamed if the owners overspend on certain players, and that the players have to take a stand or else they’ll get screwed over again and again in future negotiations.
  • If you’re on the owners’ side, you recognize that owners accept all the business risk in this relationship and you at least somewhat believe their claims about the losses they’re incurring.
  • Then there are the people who think there are no good guys in this stand-off and that it’s the fans who are getting screwed once again. While this particular stance is accurate, it strikes me as pointless pandering when somebody writes a column with this take. The NBA doesn’t care any more or less about its customers than any other sports league.

I haven’t weighed in about whose side I’m on before now because I don’t think it matters who is right or wrong, what’s fair or unfair in this negotiation. What matters is that we’ve now lost the first two weeks of the 2011-12 regular season and we’re going to lose a lot more until the Players Association realizes that the owners’ offers are not going to get any more generous while the players continue to lose wages. The owners are not going to cave in because they have the financial resources to outlast the players in this standoff. Sooner or later, the players need to come to terms with the fact that their perception of a fair division of NBA revenue is irrelevant, because the owners hold all the power and they can wait this out as long as it takes.

People like to focus on the salaries of NBA superstars when they debate whether or not players are overpaid, but I’ve always felt like that misses the point. The superstars absolutely deserve to make as much as they do (and you can argue they deserve even more) because they fuel the machine that drives attendance, merchandise sales and TV ratings. It’s the salaries of bench players who make $5 million or more per season that the Players Association is really trying to protect — and those are the players who are destined to lose the most in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Is it worth putting an entire season in jeopardy so that players like Josh Childress can continue to land $34 million contracts over five years? No, it’s not the fault of Childress or any other player in his position that owners and GMs are reckless enough to give out contracts like that. But the ongoing potential for players like him to continue to take advantage of clueless GMs is what this is really all about. It’s perfectly understandable for the players to fight to protect that, but I have a hard time as a fan rallying behind that specific cause.

It goes without saying that part of my motivation to suggest that the union should just sign the deal is that I simply want basketball to return. But I truly believe that the players are actually digging their own grave the longer they insist that they won’t accept anything less than the 53 percent of Basketball Related Income that they claim they’re entitled to. And no matter how they try to spin this on Twitter — and they’re definitely trying — the majority of sports fans are not and never will be sympathetic towards pro athletes who claim to be underpaid while earning tens of millions of dollars over their careers.

Players Association Executive Director Billy Hunter is certainly talking a tough game when he says things like, “I think everybody’s waiting for the players to cave. They figure that once a player misses a check or two, it’s all over. And I’m saying to you that that would be a horrible mistake if they think that’s going to happen, because it’s not going to happen.”

On the contrary, I believe that is exactly what will happen, and the only question is when and how much money the players will lose up to that point. It’s not about right vs. wrong at this point, it’s about realism vs. fantasy. The NHL owners were willing to lose an entire season during the 2004-05 lockout to get what they wanted, and I see no reason to believe the NBA owners will act differently. If the players aren’t willing to suck it up and sign a deal soon, it’s only going to get worse for them and we’re all going to suffer.