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Wednesday, October 5, 2011
NBA lockout: a player's view of owners

By Etan Thomas
Special to ESPN.com

EDITOR'S NOTE: Etan Thomas, an 11-year NBA veteran and, as the executive first vice president of the National Basketball Players Association, an active member of the players' negotiating team, presents a player's view of the attitude and stance being taken by NBA executives during the lockout. This, from his perspective, is what the owners are thinking.

We are the CEOs of the 30 teams in the NBA. We follow the lead of our commissioner, David Stern, and this is our position.

The fans will always side with us no matter what the facts are. They don't see us as greedy; they see the players as greedy. They don't see us as being unreasonable; they see the players as being unreasonable. Their anger will turn directly toward the players once they no longer have basketball in their living rooms.

We know fans don't want to see their favorite teams broken up because of a strict hard cap or an incredibly harsh luxury tax, which is the same as a hard cap. But it isn't about what the fans want; we plan to impose our will on the players, and the fans will have no choice but to accept the outcome.

We haven't budged drastically from our original proposal because, quite frankly, we don't feel we have to. We're just going to sit back and wait for the players to self-destruct while we stick to our position.

They think their little $300 million-a-year giveback to us will suffice? They think lowering their percentage of basketball-related income (BRI) from 57 percent to 54 percent is good enough for us?

Stern was being nice when he called that gesture "modest."

Etan Thomas
Etan Thomas is the executive first vice president of the National Basketball Players Association.

The majority of us do not want a lockout, being that we are billionaires and do not like to lose money. We also do not believe the players will stick together once they start missing their paychecks. It's easy for them to speak the language of solidarity and unity now. It isn't difficult for them to come to our negotiating meetings and take cute little photo ops with their matching "stand" T-shirts now, but we fully expect to see them caving once their paychecks stop coming in. We believe they are going to come crawling back to us for whatever deal we give them, almost like a strung-out addict who will do anything for the next fix. We are the ones who can scratch that itch for them, and they won't care about the particulars of the deal then. They will just want something so they can return to playing. And at that point, we'll give them an even worse deal than they would've received when they weren't desperate.

And we're gonna do it because we can.

Just like the NHL did to its players in the lockout in 2004-05.

So we're able to comfortably enter the negotiations from a starting point that's twice what we're expecting to get and negotiate our way down to what we really want. And, after achieving our desires, we can make everyone think we actually made concessions. We can give them back things they already had, such as a soft cap and guaranteed contracts; and the media will present us as though we are being flexible.

They want us to come up with a revenue-sharing plan, which has been difficult because the reality is that not all of us want to share with each other. But if we get the deal we want, it won't be necessary. Every team will be guaranteed a profit no matter what bad decisions we make.

We're going to stick to our talking points about the system being broken, stress our desire for competitive balance and emphasize that 22 of 30 teams are operating in the negative.

We know the system is just fine if we can properly run and manage our own teams. We know the general managers and presidents and all the people who actually make the decisions are the ones at fault, but we're going to point the finger at the players for accepting the contracts we give them.

We will stress that a reduction in player salaries stands as the only way to offset our losses. And we want the players to give us back portions of their existing contracts for the next few years.

We know limiting the amount each team can pay its players has absolutely zero correlation to competitive balance.

We also know that if teams controlled their own spending, hired the right people to evaluate talent and made better decisions, they wouldn't be operating in the red. But that isn't how we are going to present it to the public. We will divert the attention away from the real crux of the problem.

It's like in Washington, when one of the political parties digs in its heels and keeps repeating a position just like a mantra until people start to believe it. That's a brilliant strategy, and we are going to use it: Our system is broken. We want competitive balance. Twenty-two out of 30 teams are operating in the negative. We'll just keep saying it.

In fact, we're not even going to entertain the reports by Nate Silver of The New York Times, Forbes.com and Financial World magazine suggesting not only that our claims of massive losses were a bit overstated but that we had actually earned a profit in 2009-10. We're just going to tell you that our calculations are correct and leave it at that.

We definitely see the contradiction in the fact that after increasing our overall revenue in one of the country's worst economic periods since the Depression and enjoying skyrocketing television ratings, record attendance and ever-increasing revenues from television rights deals the past six seasons, we are now suggesting the structure by which our league operates overall is failing. We know that multiple successful businessmen, smart enough to make themselves into billionaires, wouldn't line up to try to buy franchises in a "failing" industry.

We know that if teams could control their spending, they wouldn't be in the financial predicaments they are in now. Which is why we want the rules to make our bad decisions less damaging. We want the rules to protect us from our own incompetence. We want to be able to come to a player and say, "Listen, we would love to pay you the max. We think you are worth it. But you know what? The rules simply won't let us." It takes the responsibility off of us.

We see the irony in teams choosing to blow through their salary caps, then wanting a hard cap to keep them from doing what nobody forced them to do in the first place. We know that the very system Mark Cuban is now against has enabled him to run his team to his preference, no matter what the luxury tax, and win his first championship. We know he enjoys that freedom.

We know that factors such as Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill contributed more to New Orleans' financial troubles than anything else.

We know that the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder are prime examples of how, if they're run properly, small-market teams can be successful through draft picks and proper management.

We also know there is no possible way a small-market team such as Memphis or Minnesota could ever compete with a New York or L.A. when it comes to TV deals, which makes the need for revenue sharing even more apparent. We know that it would take Portland 10 or 11 years to make what the Lakers make from their TV deal in one year.

But again, we won't focus on that. We can look away from the facts and just concentrate on our talking points.

Our system is broken. We want competitive balance. Twenty-two out of 30 teams are operating in the negative.

We are more than happy that the agents are trying to undermine the union by sowing seeds of dissension and division among the players. They write letters that become public, stressing their doubt that the union has the players' best interest at hand. If portions of the players begin to lose faith in their union, the waters become muddy, and we can then dominate the situation by adopting the age-old strategy of Sun Tzu's "Art of War": Divide and conquer. At first, we were worried about the agents working with Billy Hunter and the union, but, to our pleasant surprise, the opposite has happened.

The agents are under the impression that the answer to moving this process along is the threat of decertification. They feel that this threat will bring us to the table to start negotiating seriously. They believe this is the silver bullet that will save the season, without asking themselves the million-dollar question: What if it doesn't work? What if they play that card and it does nothing? What if we call their bluff?

The agents fail to recognize what a dangerous game that is to play if we don't react the way they are hoping we will. Of course we don't want the union to decertify, but who is to say we will just cave at the mere threat of it?

It's like the movie "The Breakup," in which Jennifer Aniston keeps doing things to get a reaction from Vince Vaughn. When he doesn't react the way she thought he would, it just keeps making things worse.

Agents are naive enough to think decertification can be used as a negotiation tactic. Their expressed desires prompted us to file the lawsuit with the National Labor Relations Board and in federal court. We asked the courts to grant us the legal right to void all existing player contracts if it is discovered that the decertification (if used in the future) is a sham. We know the union has never made any actual threat to decertify, but the potential influence of these agents is a concern for us. So filing a pre-emptive strike was a no-brainer.

We know the union has consistently distanced itself from what the agents are pushing.

But that aside, having the agents plant a seed of dissension among the players is beneficial for us. So the union can bring in DeMaurice Smith in an attempt to keep the players together and convince them that decertification is not the silver bullet the agents have been telling them it is. They can have Kevin Durant claim that the players won't give in. They can have Carmelo Anthony stress the importance of the players sticking together. They can have Chauncey Billups and Jermaine O'Neal explain how agents need to stay out of the negotiations and that the agents work for the players and not the other way around. They can have Kevin Garnett give emphatic speeches at union meetings. They can have Kobe Bryant telling guys that he will put up his own money to help some of the younger players who are struggling.

And Dwyane Wade can take offense at Stern's gestures or language in the bargaining sessions all he wants. Once the seed of dissension is planted, it only works to our favor.

If we can get players to fragment and their walls of unity and solidarity to come tumbling down, we will win.

The only fact that is relevant is this: If the players don't stick together, we will crush them. Period.

Etan Thomas is an 11-year NBA veteran and a poet, author and motivational speaker. You can visit his website at etanthomas.com.

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