The NBA Lockout and Political Negotiations

As negotiations between the players and owners have dragged on without finding a resolution, the National Basketball Association remains “locked out” – with a serious threat of the 2011/2012 season being cancelled all together.  The principal reason being the discussions have not actually been “negotiations,” as only one side has shown any willingness to compromise – the players.

From the owners perspective, there is no benefit to actually conceding anything –  if there are no games at all for the next year, the kingpins of the 30 professional basketball teams will not suffer, as their main income sources do not come from the sport.  Indeed, many will save money if there is no season and they do not have to pay out wages.  In contrast, the players – whose careers are already short – will be without their salaries for an entire year.  While many of the top players have multi-million dollar contracts, this is not the case for all 450 athletes who make their living in the NBA.  Also, many in the league take on financial responsibilities to assist their family and friends back home, so a large pay packet is often spread thinly and helps many people.

Because one side is more than willing to void the season, while the other would suffer greatly financially in such a situation, the debate has never been finding a fair deal – the owners have been lowballing the players to see just how big a percentage of revenues they can keep.  The biggest sticking point, the share of Basketball Related Income (BRI) that each side gets, is a prime example of that.  In the previous Collective Bargaining Agreement, the players took 57% – in the negotiations they have been prepared to go as low as 52.5%, but the owners will not offer anything more than a 50:50 split.  The proprietors of the clubs also want to reduce the maximum length of contracts that can be offered, meaning players would be more vulnerable in case of career-ending injuries.

At no point did the owners offer any solutions which would involve a compromise from them.  For example, while it is true that many of the teams lost money in recent seasons, due to dwindling attendances at games, those in the big-markets continued to make large profits (successful teams like the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics, as well as underperforming franchises like the Los Angeles Clippers or New York Knicks).  If there was more revenue sharing from ticket sales or if television sales were done solely on a national basis, rather than locally, this would assist the teams that have been operating at a loss just as much as taking it from the players would.  While the Knicks may reject this on the basis that they have their own TV channel (MSG) and should be able to profit from their huge local support, the league would not be as strong if only a few teams from the bigger cities existed.  It needs all of the clubs, good and bad, to make the NBA what it is. It’s not as though teams that struggle one season have no way of improving the next: the draft lottery can have a huge impact on a bad team and turn them into contenders, as it did for the Cavaliers when they landed LeBron James in 2003.  Having just five starters on a team, with players coming out of college ready to be in the everyday lineups, a struggling side can be transformed much faster than in the other big sports.  In the NFL, it takes many seasons of good drafts to transform the squad, though an elite quarterback accelerates improvement; while in baseball, even the highest rated draft picks spend long periods honing their craft in the minor leagues, with little guarantee that they will ever succeed in the majors.

With no leverage at the negotiating table and unhappy with both the offer the owners made and the way they feel they have been treated, the players will now disband the NBPA (National Basketball Players Association) and pursue lawsuits in order to try to force a better deal.  The fact that their union has to be broken up in order for the players to make any headway, shows that it is little more than a collective bargaining group, rather than an entity that provides any real protections for its members.

As it has dragged on, the NBA lockout has reminded me more and more with the current political climate in the United States – the players are in the role of the Democrats, while the owners represent the Republicans.  Once upon a time, there was a genuine debate over issues and both sides would try to reach a compromise.  When President Clinton suffered a defeat in the midterm elections in 1994, the next two years were spent trying to negotiate with the GOP and Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich.  By his second term, he was having impeachment hearings brought against him and ever since, the centre point of all arguments has moved further and further right.

In last week’s elections, the unions recorded a huge victory by overturning Governor Kasich’s law that would have eliminated collective bargaining and the ability to strike.  The unions established rights and many benefits for working people in the United States, yet that they are allowed to exist is now considered a win.  When the debt ceiling needed to be raised last summer, in order for America to pay the bills that legislation from Congress had already accrued, no longer was it an automatic process in the way it had been 68 times before, including 7 times under President George W. Bush and 17 times during the Reagan administration.  Suddenly, President Obama and the Democrats in Congress had to negotiate a way of reducing the deficit before the ceiling was raised – of course the idea of raising taxes on the highest incomes was not an option and all of the money had to be found from spending reductions.

When President Obama was trying to get a healthcare bill passed, the idea of having a public option was rejected by the Republicans and the only way the bill could be passed was by having it be so friendly to corporations that it was almost entirely irrelevant to those who would need it most (save for the elimination of the “pre-existing condition” get-out clause insurance companies have used for so long).  That debate happened before the 2010 midterm elections, when the Democrats had control of both chambers of Congress, as well as the Presidency, but because the Republicans could threaten a filibuster in the Senate, the discussions moved to the right and stayed there.

Prior to Bush being handed the Presidency by the Supreme Court “elected” in 2000, gun control was still discussed and debated, and would be a campaign issue that voters would want to know the candidate’s stance on.  Now, there are no longer arguments from the Democrats to implement any type of regulations on gun ownership – if someone tries to prevent semi-automatic weapons being available to buy over the counter, the Republicans will cry that they want to take away people’s Second Amendment rights away.  In fact, the right of the people to bear arms was designed to avoid a tyrannical leader imposing their will on the states, in the way that King George III had done prior to the revolutionary war.  When the Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution, the idea was not that everyone could, and should, own a handgun, AK47, rocket launcher…

But gun control is not even on the agenda anymore, healthcare was watered down, the Bush Era Tax cuts remain in place. The starting point for all discussions is far to the right and then moves even further in that direction.  When the Debt Ceiling was eventually raised prior to default in August (but not before a downgrade for the US Government debt), the GOP complained that they did not get anything in the deal, even though it included more spending cuts than the plan Speaker Boehner had offered at the start of the negotiations, and the same number of tax increases – zero.  It is a skill shared with the owners of the NBA teams, suggest a deal in which you get lots of concessions but give none away, then complain about the other side anyway.  While the Democrats never stand up to the Republicans, the players have decided to fight for what they consider justice to be – good luck to them.

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