Commentary

Players worth far more than 50-50 split

A divide down the middle sounds good, but there's nothing fair about the deal

Updated: October 26, 2011, 11:05 AM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

David Stern and his billionaire boys club thought they scored a ton of common-sense points when they made their take-it-or-leave-it offer to the NBA players, and let's face it:

Is there anything more reasonable, more equitable or more American than a 50-50 split?

It sure sounds like a fair place for two hostile opponents to meet. Half the basketball-related income goes to the owners, half the basketball-related income goes to the players and millions of pro basketball fans celebrate their first victory of the season in the form of, you know, a season.

But in the end, there's nothing fair about awarding 50 percent of BRI to the people who amount to 100 percent of the reason there's any BRI in the first place.

LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose -- they don't play in the NBA. They are the NBA.

The entire league. The workforce and the product.

The owners? They're just along for the ride.

"What I'm always telling the players," Billy Hunter, executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, said Tuesday night, "is that nobody comes to see an owner bounce or shoot a basketball."

Or as baseball's original game-changing union chief, Marvin Miller, put it: "As smart as Walter O'Malley was when he owned the Dodgers, nobody ever paid a dollar to get into his stadium to watch him smoke his cigar."

People pay to watch world-class athletes do world-class things. So no, NBA players shouldn't settle for the 50-50 split of $4.3 billion in annual revenue the owners are demanding they accept, not when the players already agreed to surrender more than $1 billion in salary over the next six years.

The union already has agreed to reduce its 57 percent cut to 52.5 percent. If the owners succeed in convincing the union to accept 50 percent over 10 years, and if there's a jump in BRI, the players could lose more than $3 billion in wages over the life of the contract.

That would be tantamount to the owners scoring a four-game sweep in the first round of the playoffs, something they clearly don't deserve.

"In most industries, you're selling something that you created," Hunter said, "but in the NBA, you're marketing the players. I don't want to minimize the contributions of others ... but these are the best 450 players on the globe, and they're not replaceable. Without them, there is no game.

"So the players should always get more than a 50-50 split, even if it's only by 2 or 3 percent."

Of course, there's a difference between a 50-50 split of BRI and a 50-50 split of income. NBA owners grab $600 million in expenses off the top, and some sources of revenue don't fall under the BRI umbrella.

So the players' half is actually less than half. Even at the risk of a lost season at the worst possible time, a time of exciting stars and healthy ratings and developing storylines, the players can't accept this demand.

"It's more than a compromise; it's a folding," Miller said of the prospect of the players' union, or any union, making such dramatic concessions to management. "That's the nature of the beast, too. You start to retreat, and the next thing you know you're on your back."

At 94, an unofficial senior watchdog over labor strife, Miller has observed the NBA lockout with considerable interest. He still believes a salary cap, or any penal luxury tax that serves as one, represents an agreement by a union "to cooperate with management to allow them to pay less than some members of management want to pay you." Miller has no interest in denigrating Hunter, whom he sees as an upgrade over previous union leadership, just as he has no interest in hearing Stern or the NBA owners scream about their $300 million in losses. Miller doesn't believe this dispute is about money, anyway. He's been around long enough to strongly suspect this is about power.

[+] EnlargeCarmelo Anthony
Brian Babineau/NBAE/Getty ImagesCarmelo Anthony and his fellow NBA stars shouldn't settle for a 50-50 split with the owners.
Way back when, after the labor icon had put in a lot of long, bloody days fighting against baseball's reserve clause and for free agency, he found himself in a roomful of owners speaking as if he weren't there.

"They were admitting to each other that what the reserve clause meant to them was not so much that they wouldn't worry about higher salaries, but it was the absolute structural power that it gave them," Miller said. "That kind of power is addictive, and it's something no money can buy. David Stern isn't an owner, but he enjoys the whole power structure of being the representative of the owners."

Stern was recently likened to a "plantation overseer" by Bryant Gumbel, a claim that was off base. Those who have been around the commissioner know him to be an equal-opportunity bully, one who berates his white subordinates and rivals just as passionately as he berates his black subordinates and rivals.

But Stern earned his own stardom -- and whatever obscene salary he's making -- by building a failing league into a robust global enterprise.

Even if he's flagrantly fouled his own legacy with this second lockout, and he sure has, the commissioner has done enough to merit his standing as the only figure on the management side of the table your average fan should care about.

The rest of these suits? Do the fans of, say, the Phoenix Suns care whether Robert Sarver or some other rich guy runs the team?

No, they only care that the rich guy -- whatever rich guy, take your pick -- hires a competent general manager and coach and fields a winning team.

Only, now that the rich guys have grown used to what Hunter calls "the ancillary benefits of being an NBA owner" -- i.e., securing bragging rights at cocktail parties, introducing awestruck country club buddies to LeBron and making the roster of "Dancing With The Stars" -- they want to pocket more profits, too.

"They look at the NFL owners," Hunter said of NBA owners, "guys who have money to burn, and they want this to mirror that."

Toward that end, Stern and the owners put the players on the defensive with their 50-50 bid, one that appeared to resonate with a hurting public.

Just because the owners are greedy doesn't mean they're dumb.

"People are struggling to pay the rent, buy groceries and educate their children," Hunter said, "and they're saying, 'If I can get by on $50,000 or $60,000 or $100,000, why are these players making millions complaining? Why is it so difficult to take a 50-50 split?'

"They're trying to make a living, and it's hard to empathize with someone being paid a lot of money to do something that looks recreational. But people have no idea how hard these players work, how much they generate and how much they're worth."

What are the players worth? As far as enhancing the NBA's mass appeal, they're worth so much more than the billionaire boys club that employs them.

That's why 50 percent of basketball-related income is a bum deal for the men who account for 100 percent of basketball-related relevance.

Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." "Sunday Morning With Ian O'Connor" can be heard every Sunday, 9-11 a.m. ET on ESPN New York 1050.

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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