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.
This should sting every player, because coming off a year with record revenues, they should have been getting more, and instead they took historic cuts. Instead, their contracts are now not fully guaranteed. Instead, they are weakened. They are weakened even though they are the game. For the millions who paid good money to watch the Chicago Bulls player Michael Jordan soar, no one ever paid a cent to see the Charlotte Hornets owner Michael Jordan molt. Athletes are different than typical workers, and not just because their paychecks tower over our own. They are different because they fulfill the roles in production as both workers and product. They are the shoemaker and the shoe. Or as former Washington football great Brian Mitchell said to me, “In a restaurant, a chef cooks a steak. In sports, we are the chef and we are the steaks.”
For fifteen years, young stars picked in the draft’s first round have seen their salaries constrained. Derrick Rose, the NBA’s 21-year-old MVP, has the 126th-highest salary in the league. On an open market, he would make maybe five times his current income. There are also new provisions, still to be finalized, on raising the age of eligibility and whether owners will have the power to send players to their developmental league, along with dramatic salary reductions. Still, expect the players to approve it, because in the end, players average six years in the league. Giving up one-sixth of the expected earnings for your entire life was not an option.
I understand that, but it didn’t have to be this way. This deal is just all so very pre–Occupy Wall Street. I wish more players had spoken out and not let David Stern’s PR machine define them as “greedy millionaires, insensitive to the public’s suffering in these hard economic times.” I wish more had directly raised the issues of Occupy Wall Street, like eleven-year veteran Etan Thomas, who wrote, “While the issues raised by the Wall Street occupiers differ from the issues of this lockout, aren’t there obvious parallels in power imbalance? Who is in the same position of power as the 1%? Who wants a bailout for their own mismanagement decisions? Who is more closely aligned with the corporate interests from which the Wall Street occupiers are looking to reclaim the country?”
I wish they had taken their fight out of the boardroom and into the public sphere. Make no mistake, I’m an NBA junkie and I’m thrilled to be watching ball sooner rather than later. But with every game of this warped, bastardized sixty-six-game season, I’ll remember that we had a lockout where the rich got richer, the players got played and the fans didn’t get a damn thing.