The news blared with the electric intensity of a Black Friday taser. The NBA is back, baby! A sixty-six-game season! Returning on Christmas Day, no less! As former journalist and current NBA talking head Michael Wilbon cheered, “The league couldn’t stage a more satisfying comeback. Even if those games are all moved to TNT, I’ll feel the same way about the Christmas Day return.”
There were those bitter adversaries, NBA Commissioner David Stern and National Basketball Players Association Executive Director Billy Hunter, grinning ear-to-ear, discarding their suit jackets and wearing bunchy, seasonal sweaters from the Heathcliff Huxtable collection. Stern was smiling so wide, it appeared that if you poked his middle, he’d giggle like he was Poppin’ Fresh. Hunter, no doubt feeling relieved that he at least fought off a “hard cap” and other demands from ownership, was clearly in the holiday spirit as well. Only NBPA President and LA Lakers Co-captain Derek Fisher, wearing a suit, not a sweater, his eyes bleary from the marathon bargaining session, resembled someone who’d just endured one of the more bitter sports/labor negotiations in history. He looked like he’d just emerged from a Turkish prison.
Judging by facial expressions alone, I’m going to stand with Fisher on this one. Forget the cuddly sweaters. Ignore President Obama’s personal “good deal” thumbs up. Disregard the avalanche of tweets from your favorite star player about how excited they are to get back to work. The players were dunked on and Stern is wagging his tongue while hanging from the rim. If you ignore the bells and whistles and wipe away the confetti, we have what at the bottom line is a massive transfer of wealth from players to owners: $3 billion over the next decade, to be more precise. Three billion dollars extracted from those we pay to see, to those who have spent the last twenty years treating fans and taxpayers like the cowering abused partners we are.
For those interested in the finer points of the proposed “amnesty provision” for releasing players or the “stretch clause,” please search elsewhere, although I will say that giving teams the right to invalidate guaranteed contracts is a severe concession for the union to make. It also will do more to help big-market teams that spend carelessly than the much-discussed poor, small-markets squads. In other words, there is nothing in this collective bargaining agreement that changes the basic contours for reaching a championship: teams that draft well and manage their cap will thrive no matter the size of their region (see San Antonio and Oklahoma City), and teams that spend blindly (the Knicks and Nets) or are owned by people proud to be stupid (the Kings or the Suns) will suffer. The deal won’t make LeBron’s sphincter unclench in the playoffs and it won’t make Carmelo play defense. It won’t make Kobe any younger or Bynum any healthier. The league will still be The League. There are no promises that the owners will plow this newfound lucre into their teams. In fact, there are now greater restraints on spending than before. There are no assurances that any funds will be earmarked for coaches or scouts. There are no announcements that any of these savings will translate into lower ticket prices or NBA package discounts for fans. All it means is that the owners have received a financial windfall because they own and we don’t. Now Donald Sterling, owner of the LA Clippers, can buy some more slums. Now Phil Anschutz, minority-boss of the Lakers, can keep fighting the teaching of evolution in schools. Now Dick Devos of the Orlando Magic can give even more generously to Focus on the Family. Now every shadowy Koch brothers/Karl Rove political outfit that takes unlimited contributions will get a serious windfall just in time for the 2012 elections. Break out the bubbly.