Commentary

These squirrels are driving us nuts

Updated: October 18, 2012, 10:17 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

We interrupt that spasm of optimism surrounding the lockout to return you to the numbing reality that the owners and players remain very much two groups mumbling in separate languages.

Imagine two squirrels in a small box and one, tasty nut to be found.

Try as they might, in spite of the absolute necessity of finding that nut to ensure both their survival and the maddening proximity of that nut, it remains just out of reach.

Stupid squirrels.

How else to characterize Thursday's emotional letdown of a bargaining session when the NHLPA claims it delivered three different proposals to the NHL only to have all three shot down in a matter of minutes?

Must have been some serious speed-reading by the NHL's negotiating team that included on this day ultra-hawks Jeremy Jacobs from Boston, Washington owner Ted Leonsis, Calgary's Murray Edwards and Craig Leipold, owner of the Minnesota Wild.

Leipold remains an interesting figure in this dispute, considering the Wild owner penned two contracts worth just shy of $200 million to commit free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to long-term deals and now is claiming the system under which those contracts were written needs to be dramatically revamped.

Irony is something that is apparently lost on Mr. Leipold.

On Tuesday, it appeared we might be approaching a breakthrough in a lockout that is now more than a month old. The league came out of nowhere to make an offer that included a 50-50 split in revenues and increased revenue sharing and other elements that, in the right light, could have been construed as conciliatory.

Given that that proposal included a chance to play all 82 games and thus pay players a full salary -- whatever those salaries would have looked like under a new deal -- one might have expected the players to seize that and try to manipulate it and tweak it more to their liking.

You know, sort of draw a line from A to B.

Isn't that, after all, what negotiating is supposed to look like?

Multiple sources have told ESPN.com there was and is room within that owners' proposal to move, areas that could have and still could form the basis for negotiation and some sort of resolution.

Likewise, multiple sources have told ESPN.com that many players believed that owner proposal was a good starting point. It had its warts, of course, but it was a place from which to begin getting a deal done.

Instead of drawing that line from A to B, the players came in with proposals that appeared to be a further reworking of their earlier proposal -- or lines that went from D to E.

Within minutes of the meeting's rather abrupt end, there were claims that the sides were trying to mislead the public about what exactly the offers entailed.

The players' union, for instance, insisted the third offer was a simple plan that would have seen the two sides split revenues 50-50 as long as the league agreed to honor all existing contracts.

Deputy commissioner Bill Daly insisted that proposal is completely misrepresented and that such a deal is actually a 56 or 57 percent cut for the players and never guarantees a 50-50 split during the life of the deal, with some $650 million hidden outside the deal.

In fact, the league insisted that none of the proposals guarantees a 50-50 split in revenues.

Oy.

We imagine this tawdry little drama as a Samuel Beckett play, called "Apocalypse Shortly." Beckett was a purveyor of something called Theatre of the Absurd, so we think this analogy this works.

In this two-man drama, one character, let's call him Don, hands the other a sheaf of papers.

"Hey, read this, Gary, I think you'll like it. It's exactly what you need," the Don character says.

At the same time, though, the Gary character hands Don a similar sheaf of papers.

"Hey, read this, Don, this is really good."

The two continue to hand the papers back and forth throughout the play.

The problem is that both characters are blind.

Absurd? Sure. Just like these negotiations.

Because here's the rub. When all the rhetoric had cleared after Thursday's deflating exercise, what was left was the idea that maybe what's written on those two sheaves of paper isn't all that dissimilar.

Both sides seem prepared to settle in at a 50-50 split in revenues.

The players continue to say they want more than anything to have the league guarantee their existing contracts -- contracts signed by guys such as Leipold and Jacobs and Leonsis.

The league claimed in its proposal Tuesday that there was a mechanism to make that happen, to make whole those existing contracts.

If the league can't get to 50-50 while honoring those deals and without essentially creating a system in which the players end up paying each other during the life of the contract, it needs to come clean about that fact and come up with something that achieves that, or this process seems doomed.

But if the league can do what it purports, then there's no reason a deal shouldn't be done in short order, because the players' proposals don't seem that far off the same track.

In the end, this is less about speaking the same language and more about leadership and the notion that leadership doesn't just mean telling your constituents what they want to hear or marching down a path that is defined simply by one set of dogmatic principles, to hell with the final destination.

Leadership is about understanding how to make your path bend to the other side's so that they intersect at some point.

History suggests that's clearly not Bettman's strong point. Not with a third labor stoppage under his belt.

But with all this talk about NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr and his track record of labor peace in baseball since 1994, shouldn't we have expected more than this?

Wasn't Fehr supposed to write a different script for his players?

Instead, this union and the game it claims to love is in exactly the same spot it was eight years ago.

Think "Thelma and Louise" redux.

Anyone remember who was driving when that car went over the cliff?

Nope.

Just as no one will remember who is behind the wheel when it goes over this time, because all people will remember is the horrific sound of the crash and the smell of a game going up in smoke once again.

Unless, of course, the guys at the top can find that elusive nut after all.