THE NBA'S SHIP OF FOOLS "PUT SIX PEOPLE IN A LIFEBOAT AND THEY'LL GET ALONG SPLENDIDLY. PUT THOSE SAME SIX PEOPLE ON A LUXURY YACHT AND THEY'LL FIGHT OVER WHO HAS TO SERVE THE DRINKS."

August 13, 1995

All right, so Michael Jordan heretofore has evinced the social
conscience of a flea, and any comparison of Patrick Ewing to,
say, Mother Jones ought to be limited to the fact that she had
healthier knees. Nevertheless, we are at a point where a former
tele-lecturer in history at Kennesaw State College is accepted
not merely as Speaker of the House but as a public intellectual.
So let us accept for the moment the notion of Messrs. Jordan and
Ewing as knights of labor. Let us also accept for the moment
that this whole NBA labor calamity represents something more
than the depredations of a platoon of superagents led by David
Falk (who happens to represent both Jordan and Ewing). All that
having been said, the dispute that threatens the NBA season is
uniquely calamitous, because the context in which it arose is
unique in professional sports.

Over the past decade, the NBA has been spared the labor strife
that sorely beset the other three major sports. This has been
universally attributed to the cooperation between management and
labor that was forged during the days in the late 1970s when the
NBA didn't have enough future to throw to a cat. As baseball's
management stubbornly fought for a return to the 1950s, and as
the people who ran football and hockey stubbornly fought to stay
there, the NBA sailed blithely ahead, unaware that it was
deluding itself.

Which was perfectly fine with commissioner David Stern and the
men who own the NBA's teams. For them, the illusion of
partnership not only was useful within the league but also was a
public relations bonanza outside of it, particularly when every
other professional sport seemed hell-bent on devouring itself.
However, over the past year Stern has leaped enthusiastically
into the tiny shoes left behind on the national stage by Bud
Selig. Stern locked his erstwhile partners out and tried to ram
through a crackpot "luxury tax" so plainly absurd that it didn't
last much longer than Jordan did at the bargaining table. The
Players Association was caught flat-footed, having mistaken a
temporary truce for a lasting peace.

With only 16% of the workforce unionized in a downsized America,
it may come as some surprise that the relationship between labor
and management is fundamentally adversarial. God knows, baseball
understands that simple truth. Consequently, the baseball strike
at least had the benefit of clarity, no matter how much romantic
mush about The Game came pouring out of baseball's kept press.
Because the NBA had so much of its institutional identity
wrapped up in this illusory compact between the league and its
players, the league was blind to its single greatest flaw.

The NBA's tight relationship with its players was developed in
extremis, with survival as its only purpose. Put six people in a
lifeboat and they'll get along splendidly. Put those same six
people on a luxury yacht and they'll fight over who has to serve
the drinks. Ultimately, the relationship between labor and
management in the NBA worked during the lean years, but it was
not designed to withstand prosperity. For example, much of the
current wrangle began when the Players Association tried to get
a piece of the league's licensing and overseas broadcasting
fees. Neither set of fees was included among revenues of which
the players received a percentage, largely because nobody had
envisioned a day when the league would be able to sell game
jerseys to every Tom, Dick and Stojko on the planet.

This institutional blindness also accounts for the preposterous
hiring of Simon Gourdine as the union's executive director.
Gourdine was previously employed by the league as a deputy
commissioner, and events have shown that his hiring gave Falk's
insurgency one more issue--that Gourdine was a management mole--to
use in attacking the union's credibility with its rank and file.
Consequently, when negotiations broke down last Thursday--the
day after Gourdine had announced a Tuesday deadline after which
he intended to chloroform his own union--he looked like a man
who'd been rolled by those who had been pushing for
decertification all along.

At that point, as distasteful as it may be, Falk and his
high-profile clients had captured the Balkanized labor side of
the NBA. They appeared to be on the brink of wrecking a season,
destroying a historic players' union, setting back the process
of collective bargaining about 25 years and making damned fools
of themselves. The fact that the NBA has filed unfair labor
practice charges against the dissident faction leaves no doubt
that the Falk faction is the NBA's true adversary now, the
Players Association having abandoned that role in the false
spring of the 1980s. Say what you will about Falk, even
opportunists need opportunities. You don't even have to be a
former tele-lecturer in history to know that.

Charles P. Pierce is a writer-at-large for GQ.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: EVANGELOS VIGLIS [men in suits and basketball players fighting over pie]
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