League turns talks into disgrace
Adam Silver tried. Give him that much.
When the NBA lockout was reaching its ugliest point on Thursday night in New York, the deputy commissioner took a moment to discuss the incredible damage being done to the game.
"We understand the ramifications of where we are, we're saddened on behalf of the game," Silver said as he addressed the media while sitting next to Spurs owner Peter Holt. "We recognize that we're disappointing millions of fans, not just in the United State but around the world. We're having a huge impact on thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of jobs in this country related to NBA basketball, so we just want to assure everyone that we don't take anything we do lightly at all."
Then came the only truth that mattered here, the proof that commissioner David Stern and the owners are as tone deaf to this time as so many had feared.
"But we have certain core beliefs ... which we think are absolutely necessary to achieve before we continue to play NBA basketball," Silver continued.
Silver said that last part while making a firm, hand-chopping gesture toward the table in front of him. He might as well have split it in two and walked out to spare us the spin that came thereafter.
Never before had the league been so transparent, with Silver making it clear that the NBA was pushing forward with its have-its-cake-and-eat-it-too strategy. It wants to win on both basketball-related income (BRI) and the structure of the deal, and anything less will result in the sort of mass owners' exodus from meetings that led to Thursday's impasse. The league is clearly impervious to accusations of greed, and the championing of parity as a major motivating factor will continue no matter how many folks disagree.
"What we told the players again today was that we could not trade one off for the other," Silver said of BRI and system issues. "As much as we would like to find a way for a so-called win-win for both parties, or we win one and you win one, in terms of the future of this league, we don't think it makes sense."
Now what was once a tense negotiation that we all saw coming for the last two years has become nothing short of a disgrace. Fans are infuriated by a fight between billionaires and millionaires who have no business acting like this in this economic time. And on the public front, which should matter so much more than it appears to, the tone of the talks is getting worse by the day. For that, we can thank HBO's Bryant Gumbel.
His irresponsible comparison of Stern to a "modern plantation overseer" this week added a racial component to the matter that won't go away anytime soon. The issue was already bubbling beneath the surface, if only because these white owners have spent so many months battling with a mostly black workforce. Some players even seemed to endorse Gumbel's views on Twitter, where the acrimony reached incredible levels by way of the social-media microphone. Players were calling their own owners greedy, fans had vicious back-and-forths with players, and it was hard to imagine that these people who make up the heart of the league would be forgiving or forgetting in the near future. Of course, Stern wasn't around to see the latest bashing of his league's brand. He was said to be home on doctor's orders with the flu.
But here's the thing about the dismay on display: None of this would matter nearly as much if the two sides were still stuck in a room together. Nothing quiets the critics like some genuine try and might. The NFL spent 16 straight days negotiating with a mediator in February and March before finally giving up. NBA players made it clear Thursday that they had intended to keep the talks going for as long as was necessary. But by walking away after three days spent with George Cohen and -- as so many suspect, myself included -- relying on the threat of missed player paychecks to apply more pressure, the owners made a mockery of the mediation. It was no less forgivable for the owners to take their ball and go home in this session than it had been for the players three weeks ago, when Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Kobe Bryant made a rare appearance and set the hard-line tone that brought an abrupt end to the momentum then.
On Thursday, as was recounted by union head Billy Hunter -- whose players earned 57 percent of BRI previously and had offered 53 percent in negotiations before the latest meeting -- the owners offered a 50-50 revenue split that came with one major condition: We won't discuss the system issues any further unless you agree to the economic number. The Cavaliers' Dan Gilbert made the owners' absurd proposition even more so when he allegedly told Hunter to "trust [Gilbert's] gut" that the system would be handled fairly. And to hear Holt try to justify it all was more maddening than the rest, especially when he pretended the owners had been joined by the players in their dash for the exits.
"Both sides, for lack of a better term, felt stuck," the labor relations committee chairman said, noting that there have been 45 meetings over two years and three long sessions this week. "We've kind of worn each other out. We are where we are and they are where they are. We need some fresh air and maybe some fresh thoughts, and then try to get back together."
That said, fans would be wise to remember the lessons learned from recent months. Just because no talks are planned doesn't mean the two sides might not resume discussions soon. What's more, it's worth peeking at a possible premise on the players' side in an attempt to explain their seemingly suicidal position.
While two weeks of the regular season have already been canceled and at least two more are expected to go soon, two sources close to the negotiations said the union believes that Stern assured his ESPN and TNT television partners that, by back-ending the missed games, he can still deliver an 82-game season even if starts in December. Accurate or not, the players' perception of when their early paychecks will truly be gone for good will determine when they reach for the panic button. Conversely, it seems clear the owners want to push this timeline to the brink to get their dream deal, knowing full well what might happen when players miss the first round of paychecks in mid-November and a second round two weeks later.
Except for one thing: The damage is worsening by the day. The sooner Stern and the owners realize that, the better off they'll be.