Saturday, November 19, 2011

There's Plenty of Blame to Go Around. Now Shut Up About It and Make a Deal.

While there have been heavy doses of sniping and finger pointing since the NBA lockout began, at least it was against the backdrop of ongoing negotiations. That is, until now. Now that the players and owners have moved from negotiation to litigation, their immaturity is even more appalling. These are grown men in charge of overseeing a multi-billion-dollar industry. They are also stewards of the greatest game in the world. They need to stop worrying about convincing the public of who's to blame and get back to work on hammering out a deal. The fans and media will make sure that the finger pointing continues (we'll do our part in upcoming posts), but we're helpless to get the parties past their ridiculous impasse. The players and owners, on the other hand, are just as capable of solving this thing now as they were before the union disbanded and turned the reins over to their attorneys.

So stop talking and tweeting about who has been more greedy and unreasonable and focus instead on getting the NBA machine up and running again. Once that's done, you can argue all you want over who deserves more credit. At least we'll be watching basketball while you do it.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A Sincere Plea to Leadership

Dear David and Billy,

During the last several months, I have followed every step of the labor negotiations religiously, all the while hoping earnestly for the parties to reach an agreement for the good of the game we love. Yesterday was a sad, dark day for all of us who have been lifelong, avid NBA fans, as I know it must have been for the two of you. But it doesn’t have to be this way. You two have the power to reverse the current cataclysmic course and save the game that is bigger than any of us. On behalf of all who truly love the game, I respectfully ask that you please pick up the phone and do that today.

Billy, the previous CBA favored the players to the point of putting the long-term financial well-being of the league -- or at least many of its members -- in real peril. While it’s always difficult to "give back" something you have had before, it has to be done for the good of the game. Moreover, changes to the previous system were also absolutely necessary to create more competitive balance. When you level the playing field so that every team has a reasonable opportunity to compete, you have a better league. That benefits everyone: owners, players, and fans alike. Regardless of any so-called concessions, the players still have the best job in the world. C.S. Lewis said “pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man.” If you could shift the focus away from what the players have "given up" to what they still have, you could dramatically alter their current attitudes and perspectives.

David, the owners need to have a more clear understanding that in addition to having an asset on their books, ownership of a professional sports franchise represents a sacred stewardship of the public trust (see Larry H. Miller). The players aren’t a commodity or a product, but partners in a remarkable enterprise that blesses countless lives. The owners have a responsibility to safeguard the game, which means they can’t allow themselves to be blinded by self-interest and run roughshod over their partners. Even if you win in the courts and ultimately get a lopsided agreement -- which is likely to happen -- it’s a hollow victory because players will be even more resentful than they are now and the fans will be even more beleaguered and conflicted, or worst of all, apathetic.

The bottom line is that you need each other, you need us, and we need you. Please communicate with each other today and finalize the agreement that you’ve both worked so long and hard to achieve and that is so close at hand. Imagine what it would mean to people everywhere, both in and out of the NBA, if you would put aside all of the threats, rhetoric, lawsuits, egos, and anger and simply come together. Stand shoulder to shoulder and say we apologize for letting things get to this point but we are not going to let the game be devastated on our watch. You both have the wisdom and experience to know what a fair deal looks like, so draw it up and tell your respective constituents that this is how it’s going to be. If anyone votes against it, their selfish motives will be revealed for the entire world to see.

You are both understandably worried about losing face or appearing weak if you bend now or don’t follow through on your threats and ultimatums. Nothing could be further from the truth; humility is not a mortal weakness. Please have the moral courage to do what’s in the best interest of owners, players, and fans -- not to mention the hosts of people whose livelihoods depend on the NBA or the country that could use a shot in the arm. Make a deal now and start the season. By doing this, you will uplift and inspire many and cement your respective legacies as true leaders and champions of the game.


Christopher J. Ashby

** Download a PDF version of this letter

Monday, November 14, 2011

Not Even a Vote. Pathetic.

How can you claim that the collective bargaining process has failed when you haven't even listened to your collective voice?

I'm not typically big on conspiracy theories. Most conspiracies require a whole lot of coordination of a whole lot of moving parts and that doesn't typically work well in real life. But today, the National Basketball Players Association announced that they're rejecting the owners' offer without a full-membership vote and they're dissolving the entire union. All of a sudden I feel like Oliver Stone himself.

With 450 players' salaries and the livelihoods of countless arena workers, team employees, and other voiceless people on the line, they couldn't even put this to a vote? Instead, they band together a group of player reps, beat their collective chest, and declare that they're cutting all the players loose and pursuing a hopeless antitrust action? And they have the nerve to use the word "unanimous." The Jazz weren't even represented at the meeting.

You can't tell me that Celtic guard
Rajan "Urkel" Rondo doesn't
know his way around a web form.
If I were a player, I'd be furious. Why can those guys decide to give away what will likely be an entire season of my salary without my say so? Worse yet, how can they place my contract in jeopardy of being voided without even allowing me to vote? They can't claim logistical obstacles -- give me five minutes and access to Google Docs and I could build a web form that they could post on their website and allow players to vote from anywhere in the world. Heck, it would only need one question: yes or no

So, what could their reasons possibly be for not at least putting it to a vote? Are they afraid of what a fair vote would do to the hardliners' agenda?

Further feeding the conspiracy theory are questions like these: Why a disclaimer of interest now instead of a vote on decertification months ago? If, as several agents claim, there is a decertification petition out there somewhere with more than 200 signatures on it, why haven't we seen it? 

There have been several reports over the last few days suggesting that if the owners' latest offer were put to a full-membership vote, teams would be opening their doors tomorrow. The actions of the NBPA executive committee and player reps lead me to believe that it's probably true and that union leadership knows it so they're navigating their way around their own members. That, my friends, is beyond bad faith -- it's criminal. The players might be right to take this to court, they just have the wrong defendants.

It could be that, in my fury and disgust, my imagination is running away from me. Maybe this incredibly stupid game of chicken really is exactly what the majority of players want. Of course, a player vote would confirm that and would give union (sorry, trade association) leadership more bargaining power and greater public support. So again, why no vote??

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Why JFK Would Back the Owners' Offer

UPDATE: They couldn't even put it to a cotton-pickin' vote. I guess sometimes kids have to put their hands on the stove to know it's hot. Sadly, this time it'll mean massive skin grafts.

Ask not what the game can do for you –- ask what you can do for the game.

From the beginning, the NBA has argued that their problems with the old CBA fall into two categories: economic and competitive. All indications now are that the sides have begrudgingly sorted out their economic issues. So, that just leaves the competitive points, right?

This whole thing is a frustrating and torturous process for the fans. We understand that this is a business and that a lot of people are making a lot of money in it, but our allegiance belongs to our teams and to the game itself. We can’t relate to the plight of millionaires locked out by billionaires, so many of us are just not sure whose side we’re on. Luckily, the most recent developments in the labor negotiations have erased all doubt as to who is really looking out for the game and, by extension, the fans. I'm just not sure that everyone's paying attention.

The owners’ latest proposal still puts a few shackles on luxury-tax-paying teams and includes a few other measures aimed at making the NBA playing field more even. This makes sense if your goal is long-term parity. That's good for the game and certainly good for those of us that love a small-market team. It's also good for the players as a whole because, as Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver pointed out in the NBA’s most recent press conference, it makes a championship a greater possibility for every player. While it's hard to assign altruistic motives to such draconian negotiators, it's even harder to argue that the owners' demands on these points do anything but help competition. And even if their only motivation for increasing the league’s competitiveness is to further line their own pockets, the effect is still good for the game.

So, what about the players? Why are we hearing that they're so adamantly opposed to those restrictions? Shouldn't they too be worried about increasing the overall quality of the league they play in? Well, no. NBPA leadership apparently abhors any restriction on player movement. Each player wants to be able to go wherever he wants whenever he wants to go there and he doesn't dig the idea of having to take less money to do it. No matter how they try to spin it, their disdain for the owners’ system demands reveals that the players are only concerned with themselves. And not even for themselves as a whole –- each player is looking out exclusively for his own interest. That’s a recipe for disaster.

Billy Hunter and the majority of players that have expressed a public opinion on the latest offer like to describe it as a “bad deal” for players. They talk about how reasonable they’ve been in negotiations, the concessions they’ve made, and –- my personal favorite –- all the money they’ve already “given back.” There’s one massive problem with that mindset, though: their supposed concessions are artificial. Imaginary. Smoke and mirrors.

The players had a good deal under the old CBA. That CBA is gone. Conceding that you’re not going to get such a sweetheart deal again does not amount to a cash refund. Players are now negotiating against a wiser, more hardened group of owners in a monumentally different market. Five years ago, I probably could have gotten at least 30% more for my house than I could get today. But I’m not going to list it at the 2006 price and then act magnanimous when I come down by six digits. That’s silly and it wouldn’t fool anyone. Yet that’s exactly what Hunter and the players are doing and, to some degree, it seems to be fooling people (including much of the media).

The reality is, the old deal has expired and the players are now lined up again asking the owners for access to an unbelievably good life. As they do that, they should ask a few questions: Will I still make millions on top of millions if we take the owners’ offer? Will it be for playing basketball? Will the new system be more sustainable for everyone? Will the league be more competitive? Will the game be better off? Since the answer to all those questions is yes, maybe ask one more: is this really such a “bad deal” for players?

For fans trying to decide which side to support and which to condemn, we really only have one question to ask: whose position is better for the game we love? The players’ myopically egocentric motivations do nothing for fans of the game itself. Under the player-friendly deal, the game suffered. The owners, on the other hand, have proposed a system that is light years more likely to produce a better product, year after year. Even if their motivations are just as greedy, at least the game benefits under their model. And that, in my humble opinion, gives the overwhelming advantage to the owners.

Here’s to hoping that the NBPA actually puts the proposal to a vote and that at least 50.01% of the players take a second to think about the game before casting their ballots.