If you've been following your favorite players around the globe lately, it may be easy to forget that the NBA is in the midst of a labor dispute with Armageddon-like potential. It's Week 4 of the lockout, with no serious negotiations in sight -- much less, a resolution.
Funny, you wouldn't know it, because it's business as usual for the stars of basketball, who are spending a relaxing summer promoting their brands and traveling around the world. On Monday, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony left for a Brand Jordan tour of China, where Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant already have visited. Last weekend, Bryant joined fellow stars Durant, Paul, Derrick Rose, and even National Basketball Players Association president Derek Fisher on a wildly successful exhibition tour of the Philippines -- successful for the biggest stars, that is, like Bryant, Durant and Rose, who according to SI.com were paid about $400,000 each for their trouble.
|Deron Williams, who tried to open the floodgates to Turkey, needs to use his clout in the CBA negotiations. (Getty Images)|
"It's all about giving back to the kids," James said after wowing the Drew League crowd over the weekend.
Like James, other players are doing the kind of good they always do in the summertime, too -- charitable activities that get noticed far less than their new tattoos or misguided tweets. But that's just how it goes when you're an NBA player and thus subject to ugly stereotypes and jealousy from fans who think you make too much money -- regardless of how much you make for your employers or give away to good causes.
But for the most powerful and influential stars in a sport that is locked out, I wonder what all of these appearances, globe-trotting promotional tours and threats of signing with rinky-dink overseas teams are doing for the strength and resolve of the players association and its ability to unleash strong, meaningful voices against the owners' demands. Why have the loudest voices in the sport suddenly gone silent?
"They should be talking about how horrible the owners' deal is and how little it's changed over two years of negotiations," one prominent player agent said. "The deal's horrific. It's draconian in what they're trying to do. I would be emphasizing that as much as possible. That I don't get; I would think they would just be hammering every chance they get."
Instead, they're traveling the world selling shoes and apparel, tweeting about the Cowboys and emitting glorious twitpics of their view of the Pacific Ocean during breakfast.
The NFL lockout was a different animal altogether, and the two sports are beyond comparison in many ways. But it was instructive to observe Monday, when the NFL lockout ended, how unity and leadership among the players in that sport went such a long way toward getting a fair labor deal that forced the owners to reopen their industry.
The stars of the NFL never wavered in their commitment to the union, and it went beyond simply having big names like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning listed as plaintiffs in the NFLPA's antitrust lawsuit against the league. Those stars and others spent the spring organizing team workouts -- with the emphasis on team -- to stay sharp so they wouldn't be lost in their playbooks when training camps eventually opened. In fairness, there's no FIBA for football players, so the opportunities for players to snub their noses at the NFL and head overseas for a paycheck simply wasn't an option. But the contrast between the two approaches is important.
Nets star Deron Williams recently took to Twitter and cajoled rookie Marshon Brooks to "take off that Nets shirt" he was displaying on his avatar. This was the same Williams who'd tried to open the floodgates by signing with the Turkish team Besiktas, whose coach, Ergin Ataman, has been crowing for weeks about signing Bryant next.
If the T-shirt tweet was Williams' attempt at using his clout and leadership to effect meaningful change in collective bargaining, it ultimately will prove just as effective as his decision to sign with Besiktas. (Think tree, forest, nobody around to hear it fall.) The common belief has been that Williams' trail-blazing efforts would drive a wedge into the owners' negotiating strategy and shift the leverage to the players. But I'm going to give you another, perhaps less popular, but more realistic take.
If more stars follow suit -- joining European teams or signing up for barnstorming exhibitions through China -- aren't they also running the risk of driving a wedge right into the heart of the NBPA? What happens when all the stars go overseas to "get theirs," leaving the rank and file behind to deal with the lockout and wrestle with the owners' draconian demands?
Again, where's the leadership?
As we saw last summer, the summer of ultimate free agency in basketball, NBA stars are among the most powerful in American professional sports. The players with the biggest clout and earning power are never shy about exerting their influence to get contract extensions, force trades or hold management hostage under the threat of leaving for a better team or bigger market if they don't get better talent around them. So now that NBA players are under a clear and widespread assault from owners seeking to take hundreds of millions of dollars from them or force them to sit out an entire season, where is that clout now?
Sadly, you can find it if you apply the oldest adage in sports and business: follow the money.
Players like Wade, Melo and CP3 have responsibilities to Nike and Jordan Brand, which pay them a lot of money to promote their product. So no one can fault the players for holding up their end of the bargain -- even during a lockout, which neither Nike nor Jordan Brand had anything to do with. But on their way back from Hong Kong, Chengdu, Hangzhou and Beijing, the star-studded trio should ask the Nike jet to make a stopover in New York. There, they could enjoy the fine social outlets available in Melo's new home, and also request a meeting with David Stern, Adam Silver, and the NBA's army of lawyers. Afterward, they could hold a news conference in which they'd speak as powerfully about the lockout as they do when they demand trades, recruit free agents or promote their brands.
The irony being that while the NBPA awaits a serious and constructive proposal from the owners to reopen the sport -- don't hold your breath -- some of the highest-powered agents for some of the highest-profile players are telling NBPA executive director Billy Hunter and his army of lawyers how to conduct their legal strategy. As Yahoo! Sports reported, and as multiple sources confirmed to CBSSports.com, prominent agents let Hunter have it during a meeting in New York Friday as they rabble-roused for the nuclear option of decertification and an anti-trust lawsuit.
Never mind that the NBPA is approximately 30 days away from a decision by the National Labor Relations Board on whether the union's unfair labor practices charge warrants issuing a complaint against the NBA -- an outcome that could result in an immediate injunction from a federal court in the Southern District of New York temporarily lifting the lockout.
"Under the National Labor Relations Act, a collective bargaining agreement continues in full force and effect beyond the termination date until the parties have bargained to a good-faith impasse on any issues they want to change," said Larry Katz, outside counsel for the NBPA. "You can't change anything in that contract until you've bargained in good faith and reached an impasse, including imposing a lockout."
The biggest impediment to the NFL players' antitrust case -- the Norris-LaGuardia Act, which forbids federal courts from issuing injunctions in labor disputes -- does not apply to cases heard before the NLRB. But the agents are getting restless, and either fear that Hunter is dead-set against decertification or disagree with him on the timing of it. That's a story for another day -- and we'll have plenty of them, the way this lockout is going.
The biggest issue for the players, as I see it, is this: Where are all the stars with the big voices and the clout, power-brokers who've never been afraid to speak out and get what they want?
Forget the barnstorming tour of China. How about a barnstorming tour of midtown Manhattan? How about lunch with Stern and Silver and some index fingers aimed at the chests of the owners trying to make their teammates and colleagues capitulate while the stars are busy traveling the world selling stuff -- as if it's business as usual, as if nothing is going on?
Top it all off with a press conference that has nothing to do with promoting a brand -- unless it's saving the NBA brand, which gave the players their platform and clout in the first place? But for some reason, the loudest voices in basketball have gone silent, at a time when they're needed most.