Bettman Says NHL 'Not Renegotiating,' But if it Looks Like a Duck...

With the NHL and its players' association on either side of the divide when it comes to returning to play, things will come down to the two L's - leverage and language.
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Really hate to have to fall back on the old, “Webster’s Dictionary defines (insert word here) as…” lead, but this time it can’t be helped. So…Webster’s Dictionary defines renegotiate as, “to negotiate again (as to adjust interest rates or repayments or to get more money).” I only bring that up in light of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman claiming Wednesday that “(The league has) been absolutely unequivocal with the players that we are not trying to renegotiate,” when in reality what the league is doing is pretty well a textbook definition of renegotiating. In this case, it most definitely looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck.

Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that, but it’s a really bad look for a league that is looking to change the terms of a collective bargaining agreement it reached just five months ago. But when billionaires take on millionaires, they rarely care about optics and they almost always win.

Speaking to the Sports Business Journal’s ‘Dealmakers in Sport’ panel Wednesday, Bettman talked about “stressors on the system” and framed the imbroglio as an example of the league trying to work with the players to avoid having them pay more back to the league down the road. And while young stars such as Shane Wright, who aren’t even in the NHL yet, will appreciate the gesture, it’s actually designed to keep more money in the system now and ease the owners’ case of the shorts.

But it’s a renegotiation. Trying to change the terms from 20 percent escrow and 10 percent salary deferral to 25 percent escrow and 26 percent salary deferral cannot be seen in any other light. So instead of denying that’s what the league is doing, Bettman could have basically said something like, “we have the right to renegotiate,” because that is exactly what the league believes it has. And like any showdown between management and labor, it’s going to come down to the two Big L’s – leverage and language.

In terms of leverage, it’s no contest. The owners have almost all of it and the players have very little. The league clearly doesn’t care about the optics of revisiting the CBA so soon after it was signed, in large part because the court of public opinion doesn’t affect them and their fan base has proved time and again that it will continue to consume its product. So there’s not a huge amount of concern from the league’s standpoint about exactly what moral high ground it’s occupying.

As far as language, both sides believe they have a case. The owners feel they put enough qualifiers in the memorandum of understanding between the two sides that allows them to shut down the season if they don’t get what they need from the players. The two most important exhibits in their argument are Article 5 of the CBA, which deals with giving the league discretion to suspend or cease playing, and Paragraph 17 of the standard players’ contract, which deals with the league’s obligation to pay the players if it shuts down because of circumstances out of its control. Bettman pointed this out when he said, “And by the way, there are letters in the agreement which we don’t have to get into, that were put in for our benefit in the event things got out of control as well.”

The players, on the other hand, argue that they came to this agreement specifically to deal with the uncertainty that COVID-19 would have upon the business. They’ll also be quick to point out that, even though there’s a second wave of the pandemic, you could argue that nothing that has happened was out of the realm of possibility when the two sides came to their agreement in the summer. They’d also wonder what would make the NHL so distinctive that it would be the only major league in the world to not play through the pandemic. Baseball had its season, football is going and basketball has just opened its training camp. But perhaps their best argument is that the owners absolutely have mechanisms to cease playing because of unforeseen circumstances, but they do not have the right to shut down the league simply because they can’t come to an agreement with the players.

You know it’s a major setback when the two sides can’t even agree on how to describe their impasse. Perhaps the league would gain some trust back from the players if it simply owned up to renegotiating and started from there.

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