Commentary

Labor talks: A failure to communicate

Both sides are talking but neither is listening, and the waiting game continues

Updated: October 22, 2011, 9:18 PM ET
By Andrew Brandt | ESPN.com

In thinking about the emotional and sniping reactions to NBA talks breaking off, I am reminded of a line from the old movie "Cool Hand Luke": "What we've got here is a failure to communicate."

It turns out the marathon negotiating sessions in front of mediator George Cohen were not really negotiating sessions at all. The two sides were talking, but they were not listening to each other. And listening, not talking, is the most important skill in negotiations. Cohen, bless his heart, tried valiantly to diffuse emotions and focus the parties, but his efforts were in vain.

We now are back to the vitriol that characterized the NFL talks in the days and hours prior to the NFL Players Association decertifying its union and turning litigation over to negotiation. There are strong feelings of mistrust here, especially by the union toward David Stern and the owners. The players are feeling that they have been lied to, ignored and talked down to. And like the NFL players did, the NBA players feel that the owners never really did want to negotiate; they simply wanted to impose a "reset" with the leverage of a lockout and missed paychecks.

It's personal

The standard line about negotiations is that "it's business, not personal." And in many cases, that is true. However, it is not the case when the negotiated product is human worth. These negotiations have become personal. I have been around professional athletes for 25 years; negotiations -- on either their individual player contracts or their collective bargaining contracts -- are personal, emotional and sometimes even raw.

The most difficult player contract negotiations I experienced from the team side were those involving players without agents. In those cases, I was dealing directly with the player in discussing his worth; there was no agent to buffer my statements. In both the NFL and NBA negotiations, the commissioner and/or owners have dealt not only with union officials -- the collective agent for the players -- but also directly with the players themselves. And their tactics have incensed the players, making them feel disrespected and forcing them to push back. Beyond the numbers, these negotiations are about people.

Deeper issue

Further, the backdrop to these negotiations has become infused with another element, especially in light of Bryant Gumbel's comments suggesting a racist posture from Stern. I do not adhere to any suggestion that Stern or any owner is racist. However, I do think there is a mindset among Stern and some owners to reset the sport not only financially but so the owners take back the power. Players are feeling that push from Stern and the owners.

It is the same mindset NFL players felt in their talks. We heard much about NFL owners such as Jerry Jones and Jerry Richardson saying during negotiations (I am paraphrasing), "We'll be owners long after you'll be players and we'll just get new players if you don't want to play."

I have sensed that part of the owners' wanting a reset of power came from the 2010 summer's free-agent madness. LeBron James and his advisers sat in a conference room in a Cleveland office building and listened while a parade of NBA owners and executives groveled for his services. There was clearly a line of demarcation as to who had the power. Of course, James then did what he and Dwyane Wade had planned on doing for years: joined forces in Miami. My sense is the power play by James, Wade, Chris Bosh and others (Carmelo Anthony in Denver) caused a reaction by Stern and owners that they would not let the players continue to have that power.

Who's to blame?

As to the breakdown in negotiation, both sides were quick to blame each other. The owners claim the players refuse to make real concessions and confront a difficult economic situation. The players blame the owners for making ultimatums and planning to derail these negotiations.

Negotiations turn on leverage, trust and deadlines. Despite Cohen's intervention, none of these are present. My sense is each side has an internal deadline on these negotiations. While it's not clear when the deadlines are, my sense is that (1) neither side has reached its deadline, and (2) the deadline is later for the owners than the players. As to leverage, the owners have more staying power. Unless the players decertify -- and lose the rest of the season -- they have no way to change the status quo.

As I said during the NFL negotiations, this isn't an argument about what is fair or who is right. Nor is it beneficial for either side to try to elicit the sympathy of fans and the media. It is a negotiation -- nothing more and nothing less.

Hope still floats?

Keep in mind that the two sides did actually make progress this week. The owners presented a real revenue-sharing plan that the players seemed to accept as legitimate. There was movement on both the value and length of the midlevel exception. And the fact remains that the two sides are only 2.5 percent apart on the revenue split, amounting to roughly $100 million annually. This progress was not for nothing; when the two sides next meet -- and they will meet again soon, despite the posturing -- they will start from where they are now.

Just as the two sides came together after the talks blew up in the beginning of October, they'll come together again soon. More games might yet be canceled, but I still do not believe the doom and gloom scenarios about canceling the season. Economic harm for both sides will prevent that.

Once the emotions from this week subside, both sides will get back to the process of finding common ground, albeit with an emotional tinge lacing these negotiations.

Andrew Brandt, a former NFL executive and agent, is a sports business analyst for ESPN. Follow him on Twitter @adbrandt.