It’s not a real labor party until the director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service arrives. So let’s get the introductions out of the way quickly.
NBA fans, meet George Cohen. George Cohen, meet NBA fans. Cohen’s probably a good dude, but it won’t be long before every reference to his three-syllable name will be enough to cause you to throw up in your mouth a little bit.
Mediation. This is sort of like the next chapter in a Stephen King novel, except there’s no guarantee the protagonist (you) will make it out alive. As a man who makes a living covering the NFL, I was forced to squirm through the last CBA horror story. It took 18 weeks and four days before the credits rolled, but the nightmares haven’t ceased and the proverbial scars may never fade.
Not only did the NFL and its players association also partake in federal mediation during their 132-day collective bargaining war of 2011, but they also kick-started the arduous process under the auspices of one George H. Cohen. He’s the first guy we’ve shared since Bud Grant!
A few things to expect:
- An attempted gag order or media blackout to stop the rhetoric that fuels the rage.
- “Anonymous sources” to ignore said gag order.
- More discipline from both sides.
You’ll notice I didn’t say “a new CBA” or “for the NBA and its players to live happily ever after.”
Okay, good news/bad news.
The good: Federal mediation helped the NFL end the lockout and save the 2011 season.
The bad: It took two separate mediators — first Cohen for 16 days in February and March, and then a court-appointed mediator sporadically from April to July — to get it done. From the time Cohen began mediating talks between the NFL and NFLPA, it took 157 days before labor peace was officially found.
Sufficed to say, you don’t have that kind of time. David Stern has already erased the first two weeks of the 2011-12 NBA season. If things move at the NFL’s pace, you won’t have a deal in place until March 22, which would result in about a 16-game season. That works for us, not so much for you.
But this is a natural next step in a messy process, mainly because mediation should force both sides to be reasonable. Because although Cohen technically wields no power over the league and the players union, he can practically sentence either party to death in the court of public opinion.
And in a fight in which leverage is inevitably linked to who’s leading the PR battle for the fans’ hearts, that’s crucial. If Cohen indicates publicly that Stern or NBPA executive director Bill Hunter aren’t playing nice, the shamed party will feel increased pressure. It happened with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and union director DeMaurice Smith, but neither leader cracked because time wasn’t of the essence. For your sake, NBA fans, I hope that the existing time crunch expedites the transition from stubborn mode to panic mode and accentuates the pressure Cohen will surely apply.
Once a frustrated Cohen was through with them, the NFL and its players needed court-appointed mediation to carry the process forward. To get there, the union had to decertify and sue the owners. That was the next chapter in our once-grim story, but the NBA doesn’t have time for that, either. Decertification of the union now would almost certainly cost the NBA the entire season.
The really good news is that you’re quickly approaching the eleventh hour. Both sides might have reluctantly committed to mediation in separate attempts to either gain public favor or save face (or both), but that’s how Goodell and Smith entered the very same DC-based ring eight months ago.
The 2011 NFL season wasn’t salvaged until a series of clandestine, back-room meetings between key members from both sides helped bring trust and respect back to the negotiating table. Those meetings were born out of panic, but they might not have happened on time if it weren’t for mediation. Cohen and the FMCS and court-appointed mediator Arthur Boylan weren’t the entire solution to football’s problem, but they served as significant catalysts.
I know this is painful, but the unfortunate truth is that both Stern and Hunter know there’s time remaining on the clock. With a four-month season, the NFL couldn’t afford to lose more than seven or eight weeks. A deal was struck about 13 weeks before what would have been a football apocalypse. The NBA season is about 50 percent longer than ours, and the league proved in 1998-99 that an early-February start is feasible. So if we’re comparing circumstances based on doomsday deadlines, you’re still about a month away from where we were when the football gods finally sent rain on July 25.
Have faith in mediation and the world-famous effect of last-minute pressure, bite your lip and wait for a breakthrough. And if the suspense and boredom is killing you, maybe try to watch some football. It’s not that bad.