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Time for players to face harsh reality in labor negotiations

Memo to NBA players: It's time to wave the white flag.

Or at least put the menacing stares and looks of exasperation away for a while and insert a few (dozen) more concessions into the next proposal to force those draconian owners back to the negotiating table before things get even worse.

As the lockout approaches its two-month mark and with just one full-blown meeting having taken place since it began, the harsh reality is that the leverage players wanted so badly doesn't seem to exist.

The international job options that were limited to begin with are shrinking by the day. Euroleague officials are claiming disinterest in the idea of signing NBA players who are under contract, and the Chinese Basketball Association recently announced that it won't allow opt-out clauses in contracts, even if doing so means it can't have Kobe Bryant.

Decertification remains an option for the players, although dissolving the union would do immense damage to both sides, and it would only extend this sluggish situation considering the league filed a litany of preemptive lawsuits in early August. The NBA's message to its players: Go ahead and decertify, but run the risk of voiding all current contracts while continuing to avoid our inevitable victory.

The self-employment route is also a non-starter as a business strategy. Players are learning the hard way how vital the league's marketing machine is with sponsorship and television money. Exhibit A was there for all to see on Saturday night -- as long as you paid the $4.99 user fee charged by a startup basketball website that streamed the Drew League vs. Goodman League game.

It didn't matter how many stars played in the East vs. West battle of pro-am leagues at Trinity University in Washington, D.C., as numerous major television networks (including ESPN and Fox Sports) passed on the chance to air the game because -- as one involved person surmised -- one night of good business with the millionaire talent wasn't worth ticking off the billionaire bosses. Which says nothing of the endless problems the event had with the online streaming, paying customers getting stuck outside the venue and players griping about the not-so-small officiating snafu, in which Drew players weren't told until the final minutes that they could not foul out.

Some exhibition games overseas have proved to be plenty profitable for the players. But there's a limited shelf life for such opportunities and the All-Star style of competition is hardly enough to fuel their competitive fire.

There is one reason, and one reason alone, why the players aren't rolling over in this labor standoff: the expectation/belief/hope that the owners will be divided at some point in time. It is their slightest sliver of hope, the reason they continue to scoff at the league's attempt at a collective bargaining overhaul intended to shore up the $300 million in losses it cites from last season, when 22 teams were said to be in the red. That offer from the owners features a $62 million "flex" salary cap, which the players say is a hard cap in disguise (compared to the current $58 million soft cap). The plan also includes a drastically reduced split on basketball-related income that would start out as a 50-50 split and eventually could result in less than 40 percent for the players in 2016-17 (compared to the current 57-43 split that favors the players or the 54 percent players' portion already offered in the union's latest proposal).

The hoped-for fracture might start with Jerry Buss or Donald Sterling in Los Angeles, or Jerry Reinsdorf in Chicago, or James Dolan in New York. In the eyes of so many players and the folks who represent them, someone from a large market will eventually raise his hand and ask out of this lockout game. This owner would explain how the old system worked just fine for his team and how it's no longer in his best interest to support this cause.

He would be followed by a few more of the fattest cats whose finances are just fine, and then there would be weeping from small- and mid-market owners who have dreamed of a system makeover. The players, who would have missed many months of paychecks by this hypothetical point, would rejoice in that seemingly plausible scenario.

But here's the thing about this premise that has so much to do with the current state of affairs: I'm pretty sure it's wrong.

There's nary a sign of the owners backing down. Not now. Not ever. Their lack of urgency is rooted in the unofficial and universal agreement that it's worth losing an entire season if there isn't serious progress forged by the players. And while the players' desire to fight back is certainly understandable, the truth is that this slope will only get more slippery if there isn't resolution in the next month.

The owners' offers will get worse because they will begin to account for the losses that come with losing games, all while players -- whose average career length was reported as 4.82 seasons during the last lockout, in 1999 -- will see an entire season's pay go to waste. As one agent said for the umpteenth time last week, "Billionaires beat millionaires every time."

While owners rake in local television revenues that continue during a lockout and offer the sort of financial bloodline union members could surely use right now, most of the players will start missing paychecks in mid-November. And maybe that's when the end game will finally become clear.

That view has been reinforced in discussions with owners who sound just as militant now as they did a year ago. I've seen the gleeful look in a large-market owner's eye when he discusses the league's dream scenario, a system in which cost certainty aids the business side and the basketball landscape is more competitive because super teams like the one in Miami simply aren't possible anymore. I've inquired recently about the owners' level of unity, and heard the chuckle on the other end of the phone after asking if any of the big-city boys have expressed concern about the possibility of sacrificing an entire season to make these changes.

Despite the league's threats of seven-figure fines for discussing the lockout or the ones being locked out, Bobcats owner Michael Jordan -- the boyhood idol to many in the league -- recently made clear his view that the players need to give in here.

"The model we've been operating under is broken," he told the Sydney Herald Sun, while also discussing Australian native and Milwaukee center Andrew Bogut. "We have 22 or 23 teams losing money, [so] I think we have gotta come to some kind of understanding in this partnership that we have to realign."

Yet even the words of His Airness aren't likely to spark a resolution anytime soon. The new system would create an earnings divide between the league's superstars and their less-talented colleagues almost as wide as the current negotiating gap, meaning the player masses (and their agents, of course) are left scrambling for ways to turn this labor tide.

As described by one such agent who was briefed about the owners' proposal and what it could mean, a player such as Lakers forward Lamar Odom would see his salary plummet from $8.9 million to $2.6 million next season in one particular doomsday scenario, according to the union officials putting on the presentation. Such stark propositions have created a climate that another agent recently deemed "odorous," with the bad blood and bitterness continuing to rise while the emotions do nothing to help with a solution.

As commissioner David Stern asserted in a recent podcast with ESPN's Bill Simmons when asked about the absurd lack of urgency from all involved, a recent meeting that was scheduled between the two sides never took place because of the owners' refusal to heed the union's request for another proposal. And while the NBPA has been updating players and agents on the labor situation in a series of regional talks that will continue this week, it's the meetings that include both sides that are needed at the moment. Stern estimated the two would meet in the coming weeks, but it's not known whether those sessions have been scheduled yet.

"[The owners] worrying who has the leverage today or momentum or how we can break the union, to me, misses the point," said New York-based agent Marc Cornstein, who is closer to the talks than most of his peers. "You have a sport that's in the healthiest place it's been in, some people would argue, ever. You have an economy and a world where there's complete turmoil and uncertainty. I think we need to start finding solutions, not leverage.

"If we miss games, it would be detrimental to the sport. ... And that doesn't mean the players should accept a horrible deal, or the owners should accept one that's prohibitive for them, but no one is going to convince me we can't find a solution and I think it's time to start doing it."

One league source said the next Board of Governors meeting has been scheduled for Sept. 15 in Dallas, where the owners will have their own gathering and -- just my prediction here -- no one will be asked to bring a white flag. Here's to hoping the players stop by to wave one of their own.

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