Commentary

Kids talk lockout: 'Why can't they play?'

One intrepid writer tries to explain the lockout to a fourth-grade class. Think it worked?

Originally Published: November 8, 2011
By Scoop Jackson | ESPN.com

CHICAGO -- "Who likes basketball?"

All hands in the air. Little hands. Fourth-grade hands. Love-of-the-game hands. It's all they know.

If you think explaining the current NBA lockout to adults is difficult, try walking into a class of fourth-graders the week the season is supposed to start and explaining to them why there are no games being played, why there is no basketball on their television sets and -- maybe most importantly -- why they can't "stay up late with my father and watch Charles Barkley."

[+] EnlargeSchool Kids
Scoop Jackson/ESPN.comMaybe the quickest way to end the lockout is to put David Stern and Billy Hunter in front of Claudine Randolph's class.

The explanation (or the attempt at one) reduces you. Evaporates your ability to think with clarity. Maybe one of the negotiators -- a player or an owner -- or a lawyer or a commissioner should give it a try like I did in Claudine Randolph's class at the University of Chicago George T. Donoghue Charter School on the South Side.

The questions they ask are not juvenile as much as they are elementary. So earnest, so basic and pure in nature. So nerve-racking. Rapid-fire and unfiltered. Decertification? Revenue sharing? Anti-trust laws? Large markets versus small markets? Tax thresholds? Impressionable pressure tactics? So foreign to them. Empty words.

This lockout and the meetings that have been taking place over the past 130 days trying to end it have nothing to do with basketball. But when a 9-year-old chants, "Put on NBA! Put on NBA! Put on NBA!" you realize that in the heart, mind and soul of a child who loves basketball, this lockout is about nothing else. Any way you flip it.

Someone stole their game from them. They want answers, and they ask for them with such insane quickness that I'm not able to get names.

Kid: "What did the players do wrong? Why can't they play?"

Me: "Uh, nothing. The players didn't really do anything wrong. The owners of the teams just aren't happy with the money the players are making."

Kid: "Who's giving the players the money?"

Me: "The owners."

Kid: "If they're not happy with the money the players are making, then why did they give it to them?"

Me: Silence.

To them, the lockout is no different than being put on punishment. As one kid wearing Air Jordan 11 Concords says: "Derrick Rose said he loves playing basketball but now he can't play. That's the same thing my Mom does to me when I don't do my homework. She won't let me play basketball."

[+] EnlargeDonoghue School sign
Scoop Jackson/ESPN.com Kids in the George T. Donoghue Charter School have a way of cutting to the lockout chase.

"My Mommy said the players are greedy," one girl blurts out.

"Yeah, my brother said the same thing," says a little guy sitting next to her with a missing tooth and a Band-Aid on his forehead.

So I ask: "You're saying that the players are making enough money. That they're rich already. And they shouldn't be trying to get any more money?"

The whole class basically yells yes. Then a response from one 9-year-old whose hand has been up the longest: "They already have money. Why do they want more? They don't need no more. They already have enough money to buy a whole GameStop."

Then a shift. The dynamics change when a kid named Tristan asks: "What do they talk about in those meetings?"

I explain that the meetings are a part of the negotiation to end the lockout. I tell them that the reason that they have to meet is so that the players and the owners can come to an agreement; and sometimes, in order to come to an agreement, people have to disagree.

"Do they argue?" one asks.

"Yes," I say. "And sometimes it gets ugly and mean."

"My Mommy and Daddy argue," the little girl says. A lot of head-nodding.

I go back to try to explain the nature of the meetings. Tell them that some of the meetings take 15 hours. And even after all of that time, they still can't figure it out.

Instead of calling it a "collective bargaining agreement," I use the word "rules." I say the players and the owners are trying to get the "rules right" so the players can get back to playing.

[+] EnlargeSchool Kids
Scoop Jackson, ESPN.com One way the kids try to understand: Mom takes their game away if they don't do their homework.

One of the kids asks what was wrong with the "rules" they were playing with before. I tell him that the owners don't like those rules. He wants to know who made those rules up. I say the owners and players made them up together, but the owners want to change them now. The kid looks at me. Looks at me in such a way that I can read precisely what he is thinking: So you're telling me that the people who made up the rules don't like the rules that they made up and they want to change those rules and in order to do that they won't let the people who they are making up the rules for play even though those people did nothing wrong?

As all that goes through my head, all I can do is look at this kid looking at me. He isn't confused, but he has this look on his face, that slight squint in his eyes that asks me, without saying a word, if I know how ridiculous that sounds.

I do. And before I get the words together in my head to try to make it make sense to him …

"Are the rules bad?" comes out of another child's mouth. "Because we have some rules here that we don't like. They're bad."

Before they all erupt in #OccupyRecess mode, they sneak glances over at their teacher. Smart enough to know that revolting against the "rules" might lead to their own kind of lockout. But I can see it in them.

I tell them how this sort of thing happens every time there's a change of rules in sports. Tell them how there's always a chance that the players might not be allowed to play because sometimes it's hard for people with money to agree about what's fair.

Which leads to a kid saying, "I don't like the owners."

When I tell him that Michael Jordan is one of the owners, semi-Hell breaks loose. The reactions are akin to that "Jimmy Kimmel Live" video of the kids who've just been told that their parents ate all of the Halloween candy.

All of a sudden, MJ becomes a bad guy in their eyes. I've just done the inconceivable. I look at the teacher. She mouths to me, with a finger angrily pointing to the floor: "You're going to Hell."

[+] EnlargeChicago School Gym
Scoop Jackson/ESPN.comMaybe these fourth-graders can offer up their own gym for an NBA game or two.

"So does the whole thing seem silly to you all?" I ask with supreme quickness, changing the subject.

"Yes," they say in unison.

"I think since the players play, they should get half the money," one says.

Another follows with, "I think they should play anyway."

Then, "Why do the owners keep making rules that they don't like?"

And, "I don't want to have to keep watching [cartoons] over and over and over and over again. I wanna see basketball."

Followed by, "My Daddy said it's all LeBron's fault."

Kids. They don't say the darnedest things, they say the damnedest things. But the simplicity of their thoughts and questions in situations like this brings you back to the essence. It makes you look at them and re-realize that although as an adult, you know the game is a business, the business side is not what you signed up for when you fell in love with the game.

When you were this age. When you were them.

From the back of the room another question comes. The voice doesn't match the depth. It's as if the pureness of the souls in the room leaves and a new breed of child emerges. As if this lockout isn't silly, as if it isn't about fairness or who's right and who's wrong. As if understanding the battle between labor and ownership matters more to her than missing Chris Paul ball.

"What is amnesty?" the child asks.

"Uh …" I say.

I look at the teacher, who shrugs her shoulders and says, "She's on the honor roll."

Scoop Jackson is a columnist for ESPN.com.

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