It’s still more than a year before the NBA’s collective-bargaining agreement with the hired help expires, and already we’re hearing talk of a lockout.
My guess is that the same people who said in 1998 that they’d never again interrupt a season to quibble about money will forget that promise. I’m not sure that they’ll sacrifice half of a season or more to the battle as they did last time, but there will be a play stoppage.
It will probably come down to canceling training camp and maybe starting the season late. But a strike or lockout is still likely because the gap between management and workers is as enormous as the amount of money involved.
The reason we know it’s serious is that NBA commissioner David Stern chose NBA All-Star Weekend to tell the world that his league is hemorrhaging money and the players are being unreasonable in their contract demands.
Stern said the NBA is losing $400 million this year and has lost at least $200 million a year for the four previous years. Other sources say that among the teams losing money by the barrel are Atlanta, Memphis, Detroit, Miami, Orlando, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, Indiana, New Jersey, Minnesota, Charlotte, Milwaukee and Philadelphia.
According to the Associated Press, the league has presented a proposal to the union that calls for “first-round picks to have their salaries cut by about one-third, reduce the minimum salary by as much as 20 percent, and guarantee contracts for only half their value. Also, the total value of a maximum salary would drop sharply, as would the total years players could sign for, and the players would see a reduction in their share of the basketball-related income, of which they currently receive 57 percent.”
No wonder the players association, led by Billy Hunter, tore up the league’s proposal. These are expensive demands and huge give-backs.
This news cast something of a pall over All-Star Weekend. In most years, the game is a celebration. This year, it’s a negotiating ploy.
Bringing up the finances and labor negotiations at such a time is like a couple throwing a party for its wedding anniversary and then using the occasion to tell the guests that the couple is contemplating a separation. Cheery it’s not.
The reason I see a play stoppage is that the players are not going to want to give back so much. They’ve got it awfully good. The average salary is nearly $5.5 million, and the minimum salary for the last rookie on the end of the bench is a smidgen under $475,000. The players get 57 percent of all revenue under the league’s salary cap.
But they had it even better under the previous agreement, and it’s no fun for any of us to give back luxuries we had come to think of as our birthright. What would rankle the players most is cutting back on the length of contracts and reducing the amount of the deal that can be guaranteed.
That’s also what would make the owners most happy. They’re particularly tired of lavishing huge amounts of money on players who then get fat and stop playing. But with all the money guaranteed, the owners are stuck with the Shawn Kemps of the world. It’s hard to blame them for resenting that.
It’s felt that the owners also want a harder salary cap. This is to save them from themselves. If the rules are going to allow teams to exceed the cap, the ones that really want to win will do it, even if they have to pay a luxury tax. The only way for the owners to keep themselves within their budgets is to make it part of the rules.
Nobody is going to feel sorry for anyone in this fight. The owners are rich guys who extort arenas out of local taxpayers. The players are mostly kids from tough circumstances who were lucky enough to win the genetic sweepstakes. They’re not fighting over a health plan or vacation days. They’re rich guys fighting over stacks of money, and no matter how it comes out, they’ll still be rich when it’s over.
But the amounts of money at stake are what is likely to lead to a disastrous play stoppage. We are talking about highly competitive rich people on both sides of this fight. The players aren’t used to surrendering, and neither are the owners. And the more they snipe at each other, the more personal it gets; the more people dig in their heels.
So how much time remains doesn’t matter. These two trains have been on the same track, rushing into a head-on collision for years, and neither side has done anything to avoid it. They’re still not doing anything except increasing the speed on the locomotives and disconnecting the brakes.
They’re heading for a crash, and it’s not going to be pretty.