Someone thought Super Bowl week would be an excellent time to leak the NBA's opening offer to the players union for a new collective bargaining agreement. And it was, because draconian proposals in a largely successful industry are typically difficult to sell.
But that's the opening play from the owners -- a cut in the players' share from 57 percent to less than 50 (some have suggested as low as 45 percent), and statutory reductions in the length and value of maximum contracts. There are also supposedly some elements of a "hard cap," as opposed to the flexible one the league currently uses, but that's more a bookkeeping thing.
Assuming this is actually the opening offer from the owners, or more precisely from commissioner David Stern, this is going to be one fun All-Star Weekend.
It is clear that a number of owners are feeling the pinch from an uncertain economy, given that like most rich folks they did a lot of buying with paper rather than actual money. Few of them have bungled their fortunes as badly as Tom Hicks, who is selling essentially every team he has bought (and doesn't have an NBA team), but they've all found that building and maintaining an empire on credit has its dangers when the credit dries up.
See the Roman Empire for further elucidation.
It is, however, fascinating that the people who need to be punished for the owners' failures are the players, who didn't actually contribute to them. Kind of like in everyday life.
This is the problem that all leagues have taken on as the list of available billionaires shrinks to a precious few. Owners don't get vetted the way they used to; one wants out, sells to the first guy who waves borrowed cash at them, and the problem starts when the second guy can't make his annual nut. Then he has to sell to a new guy who either doesn't have enough money or is basically just someone who wants to flip the franchise.
|Why is this man smiling if his league is in such bad financial shape? (Getty Images)|
However it works, these are failures of ownership, not of labor, and it seems logical that if ownership wants relief, it acknowledges such to the union through opening their books and submitting them to forensic accountants. If they're losing enough money that they need to cut everyone's pay by more than 10 percent, they ought to be able to prove it, and better yet, be willing to prove it.
It's being partners in the truest sense of the word, addressing a mutual problem to mutual benefit, and this offer isn't it. This offer is, "We'll be opening today's chess match with the classic knee-to-groin gambit, and see how well you like playing while bent over at the knees." This is, "Our word isn't good any more, and we dare you to make us keep it."
And don't give us that, "Well, the owners are the ones assuming all the risk." No they're not. The owners are risking some of their fortunes, as nobody has ever gone broke running an NBA franchise. The players risk their livelihoods, as one knee injury takes you from the pinnacle of the profession to out of the game, and 10 years in takes a considerable toll on the body that is felt in later years. That's risk too, and trying to say the owners' risk is greater is an argument only a banker could make. Risk comes in many forms, and everybody risks something.
That's why leaking the dire opening offer is so needless, and even stupid. If this is a crisis that requires such sacrifice from the players, then the books should already be open and payrolls should be missed as proof. If not, this is just poking the cage, posturing for the sake of seeming like a bully, and Stern ought to know better.
In fact, he does know better. He just likes to do this because he, more than any other commissioner, has the power granted him by his owners to do so. He likes the game of show-squeezing every bit as much as he likes basketball, and maybe even more, and if this report is indicative of how he wants to play his hand this time, then it is more a sign of weakness than strength.
The NBA, you see, isn't a failing company -- not even close. It is a company with some of its divisions being run poorly, but that has always been true, from 1947 onward.
In addition, there has never been a collective bargaining agreement the owners have signed in any sport that they weren't bitching about as unfeasible and inequitable within two years. If they're that repetitively bad at negotiating, they shouldn't be allowed a checkbook, let alone a franchise. They're too stupid to be in the room.
So let's acknowledge that this opening offer is actually nonsense, worthy only of ridicule and laughter, two things Stern doesn't liked aimed his way. Besides, if there actually were a crisis, this wouldn't be a stealth offer. This would be the full-guns-blazing, heavy-metal-amped, scream-it-from-the-heavens offer, the "Teams will fold" offer.
It isn't, so what the leak gives us in quiet menace, it takes away in believability. It's not reasonable or particularly negotiable, so the league (or its designated whisperer) would be better served shutting up until it has something we can take more seriously.
Like the Nets and Timberwolves in the Finals.
Ray Ratto is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.