Commentary

A pox on both the NBA's labor houses!

Sympathy is in short supply for either side in this "nuclear winter" of a dispute

Originally Published: November 15, 2011
By Michael Wilbon | ESPN.com

You'll have to go someplace else for a point-by-point analysis of the players' union's rejection of the NBA's most recent offer; of the difference between disclaiming, which the players' association announced it is doing, and decertifying. I'm not saying the points and all their nuances aren't important; I'm saying that like most people, I'm tired of the debate, tired of what seems like whining over billions of dollars at a time when so many Americans are searching frantically for a second job just to pay the rent.

I'm tired of the hearing the league's position, tired of hearing the players' position, increasingly resentful that both sides seem completely oblivious as to what's happening in the real world. What they've both done, in coming this far in negotiations and failing to reach a deal, is the equivalent of running 26 miles of a marathon and then sitting down on the pavement and refusing to complete the final two-tenths of a mile. For what amounts to pennies on the dollar, the owners and players are putting a basketball season in jeopardy … jobs, careers, reputations, legacies.

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AP Photo/Seth WenigNBPA executive director Billy Hunter watched what worked and didn't work for the NFLPA earlier this year.

David Stern went into his imperial commissioner tone on Monday afternoon, righteously explaining management's position. As a person who has been on the other end of that tone at times, I can tell you Stern is a brilliant, persuasive man. But in fretting, legitimately, about a potential "nuclear winter" without basketball, Stern left out the little part about the owners locking out the players. This isn't a strike. The players didn't ask out; they're not "withholding excellence" or canceling a season. The owners, who signed off on the last labor deal, closed the gyms and turned out the lights.

Meanwhile, the players keep talking about how they're not being offered a "fair deal," as if anybody in the world finds the global economy "fair" right now. They keep telling us how going from approximately $5.4 million (on average) to $5 million is draconian … when my idea of "not fair" is when a 58-year-old single mom with three children has her teacher's aide salary slashed. Tell her about what's not fair.

I know these players know this because the overwhelming majority of them are African-Americans who, while wealthy now, are still not far removed from grandparents and parents who were/are laborers and civil servants and domestics, people praying every day that their pension funds don't dry up or run out. Please, stop with how the players are looking for a "fair deal."

What's fair is what the market will bear. If you don't have control, which is to say if you don't own the means of production, you can't alone define what is fair.

I know the men on both sides more than a little, and what we seem to have here are legitimate differences and a whole lot of hubris and ego. You've got owners who resent the LeBrons and D-Wades of the world hooking up last summer without being guided by a club's agenda. You've got players and agents who are angry as hell that Stern publicly announced a take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum, which to many of them conjures up the exact thing Bryant Gumbel talked about a few weeks ago on HBO, even if the plantation owner imagery is extreme. I've known a lot of these players their entire adult lives, long enough to know when they feel offended and aren't going to let somebody chump them. Don't tell me that's playing no role here, because it is.

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AP Photo/Richard DrewNBA commissioner David Stern was at his most imperial as he reacted to the union's moves on Monday.

Look, the reason so many of us thought a missed season was possible is because the players are wealthier, smarter and better prepared than they were in 1999. But we're still talking about a bottom line determining the outcome, whenever that is.

Players, no matter how strong the union is, can't stay out forever. If a deal had been reached today, a player who makes $8 million this year, just to pick a number, would make $100,000 a game for the proposed 72-game season, which would factor in a blown $100,000 for the 10-game reduction in the season. That money, to use a now-famous basketball saying, is never walking through that door.

Instead, let's say there's no basketball until January and the player misses his first paycheck tomorrow, another one on around Dec. 1, another Dec. 15 and another Jan. 1. That's four paychecks of $667,000 or $2.6 million.

So, how do you make that money back? Answer: You don't. You wave bye-bye to that money so the 14th or 15th man is protected from being sent down to the D-League? Or because the length of a mid-level contract is a year shorter than you feel it should be? Apparently, there are a lot of principled guys in the players' association. But how long does that hold up? Until January? February? The whole season? And to what end? Haven't enough NBA players heard NHL players, who recently missed an entire season, say it simply wasn't worth it?

And what about the fact -- and I do mean fact -- that there are close to double-digit owners who wanted the players to just say no to this deal because they didn't want the deal, either. Quite a few were willing to accept it, but are breathing a sigh of relief because they think they can squeeze the players tighter in the coming weeks, after a few of those missed paychecks.

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AP Photo/Seth WenigNBPA attorney Jeffrey Kessler is engineering an antitrust lawsuit as one of the union's next moves.

Thing is, this dispute could really get ugly now, what with legal proceedings and more games missed and more players fleeing to Europe and Asia. Hell, it got ugly last week when players started accusing Michael Jordan of being a hypocrite in these silly and na´ve rants that don't begin to recognize that people don't and shouldn't remain the same all of their lives.

The players who attacked Jordan on Twitter for being as hard on the opposite side of the fence as he was in the 1999 dispute don't know how easy it is to smack down their positions. As if a man who leaves life as a prosecutor and joins a private firm to become a defense attorney for, say, 10 times the compensation doesn't have new and different agendas. It's called going to work … or better yet, acting in one's own interest, which all parties in this dispute seem quite adept at doing. At different stages of life, we have different interests. Some of the richest and most influential players in this dispute will in their second lives become entrepreneurs, which is to say owners, who will surely sit on the opposite side of the negotiating table.

That process, of course, will take years and years. Until then, arenas will remain dark indefinitely. People trying to hold on as vendors and parking attendants will lose their $30,000 jobs and maybe their homes and have to hear men whine about getting a greater return on their franchises worth hundreds of millions, or having to take a pay cut to $5 million. So, please excuse me if I turn a deaf ear to those in the latter two groups. Call me when they have the decency to hear how good they've got it and decide -- like the people who patronize them and make their lives so cushy -- to go back to work.

Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Over the course of three decades with The Washington Post, Wilbon earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter @RealMikeWilbon.

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Michael Wilbon | email

Pardon the Interruption co-host
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC, in addition to ESPN. You can follow him on Twitter: @RealMikeWilbon