Looking across the aisle

July, 14, 2011
7/14/11
9:26
AM ET
Harper By Zach Harper
ESPN.com
Archive
When the lockout happened in 1998, it made a lot of sense for the league. While it sucks that we lost three months and 32 games of regular season basketball, it was a necessary evil for the league to give themselves a timeout and figure out the lay of the land.

Kevin Garnett had just signed one of the biggest contracts in sports history and he was only 21 years old. The NBA was losing its dynasty and greatest player with the dismantling of the Chicago Bulls and the retirement (one of them) of Michael Jordan. The league had to figure out where it was going and how to get there in the most stable and lucrative financial situation possible. There was no guarantee of a transcendent star carrying a league on off nights and through national broadcasts throughout the week.

Heading into this lockout, the league is in a similar situation. It’s not the same in terms of losing a transcendent star (Shaq lost his luster years ago and Yao Ming has been sadly absent for far too long because of injuries), but it’s similar in that the league needs to get a hold of the financial parameters of its business. It needs to try to ensure that no matter what the accounting books tell you or what the owners tell you the books tell you, the NBA is ready to recover from the recent economic spiral and set itself up to be as profitable as possible in the coming future.

With so many hundreds of millions of dollars at stake now, and even billions of dollars at stake over the course of the next Collective Bargaining Agreement, it makes sense in theory for David Stern to have a strict policy of teams and players not interacting during this “negotiating period.” (Although, it would be nice if they were actually, you know, negotiating). The owners and the players union both need to show solidarity and unity in their actions during the lockout, so they can appear to be as strong as ever when they do actually sit down and try to hammer out a deal again.

So when Seth Meyers at the ESPYs was making jokes about the Mavericks being glad they aren’t allowed to talk to Mark Cuban during the lockout and we see the camera cut to Cuban and Jason Kidd sitting across the aisle from each other, laughing at the joke, and then sharing a moment of eye contact in recognition of the joke and the meaning behind it, I wondered just where the line in the sand actually was drawn.

It seemed like the seating chart and the longing looks across the aisle were set up to cost Cuban $1 million for interacting with players. I figured I was just reading into it too much and hoping for some kind of controversy during this NBA lockout. A short time later, Dirk Nowitzki won the ESPY for best NBA player and said, "I also want to thank Mark Cuban, but since I can't talk to him you've got to say hello to him."

However, there really wasn’t any “harm” done and the entire scene seemed to be bordering on a broken up couple that was trying to figure out how to greet each one another after crossing paths at the grocery store (if that grocery store was full of professional athletes and giving out awards).

Then the Mavericks won the ESPY for the best team of the year and all relative hell broke loose. Mark Cuban and the players got up, crossed the aisle (literally), and began hugging and congratulating each other. There was no getting around this contact between an owner and its players. Cuban was talking to his guys and Jason Kidd joked that since Cuban wrote the checks, he could pay the fine.

This is where we have some confusion and weakness within the guidelines of the lockout gag order. If the NBA gave Mark Cuban a reprieve of sorts for the night’s festivities, it shows weakness. It shows that award shows and moments of charity could be a loophole of sorts for owners and players to find a way to interact. It lessens the threat of Stern’s iron fist.

But if the league didn’t give Mark Cuban a reprieve for the evening and the NBA’s most maverick owner of sorts (see what I did there?) is willing to pay a heavy fine and break the links of the ownership chain for an evening, just to accept another shiny trophy, then the players union looks stronger than the owner’s stance, even if for a night.

Clearly, Cuban can afford a million dollar fine. And even if it’s a million dollar per player he interacted with last night, he can afford a $7 million fine as well. However, the money isn’t the issue here.

Stern and Cuban have had their issues in the past. Cuban has been looked at as a threat to Stern and the way he runs the league and oversees the officiating. He’s been looked at as a troublemaker and someone that doesn’t mind spitting into the wind of the NBA. He’s willing to accept outrageously massive fines in order to make sure his team and players are being taken care of and treated in a fair manner by the league.

However, this act of a brief moratorium on a league-mandated order of silence, whether allowed by the league or not, is a win in every way for the players union.

It doesn’t mean the lockout will end tomorrow and the players will win every issue and compromise on the table. It just means the players have held stronger together than the owners and league have so far during the first two weeks of the lockout. That gratification from an Internet of voters on ESPN.com was briefly more important than negotiating tactics.

Personally, I think this is a good thing. Not because I side with the players (I don’t really side with any side in this lockout), but because I think it’s ridiculous that while the two sides are supposed to be working out a business agreement for the next five to ten years, they’re not actually allowed to talk to each other unless there are lawyers present.

I understand the concept of unity when it comes to a labor dispute. My dad was the president of a law enforcement union for a long time, and I watched him deal with relative but similar issues every day for the better part of a decade. However, it makes no sense to me that interaction between an employer and its employees would have to be such a taboo occurrence.

When you tell two teenagers that they’re no longer allowed to see each other because the parents don’t like one another, it doesn’t stop the teenagers from wanting to be together and spend time together. If anything, it intensifies the situation and turns it into a more immature circumstance than previously feared.

At this time, Billy Hunter and Stern need to understand that not letting the owners and players date this summer isn’t going to make them not want to be together. It’s just going to lead to more hopeful looks across the aisle.

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