Fleming: Labor Negotiations Need Respect
As the NBA’s collective bargaining talks between the Players and Owners head into a Wednesday deadline with little optimism, it’s hard not to look a year – or longer – into the past, shrug, and say, “I told you so.”
Those of us who have no actual stake in the negotiations beyond simply wanting NBA hoops to return to our stadiums, our radio waves, our computer screens, and our television sets knew this was coming. As soon as the rhetoric started ramping up the inevitability of this reality was clear. It seems as if the only way to have avoided this mess was if one side just completely caved to the other.
And it was clear early on that wasn’t going to happen.
What was also clear from the outside looking in – but not, apparently, to the two parties involved – was how serious either side was. The Owners’ position all along was to take a hard stance towards the division of basketball related income (BRI) and use the rest of the system issues – contract lengths, raises, guarantees, etc. – as their negotiating tools.
To anyone taking an objective look at the two sides of the equation and at what each side controlled and had to offer in negotiations, it was obvious from the beginning the Owners held all the cards. Every single one of them, from the deuces all the way up to the aces. And the wild cards.
But instead of being proactive, instead of recognizing the deficit of their negotiating position, the Players chose to call their bluff. They didn’t think the Owners were serious, and if they did they sure didn’t put any effort into responding like they believed the Owners were serious.
The problem with calling a bluff is that when there is no bluff, you lose. And not only do you lose, but you lose worse than if you had not called the bluff in the first place.
Then again, can you really blame them? Can you really blame the Players for thinking the Owners were bluffing, for thinking the simple extremist position the Owners held was ridiculous? Case in point, note this paragraph from Friday’s story by Howard Beck in The New York Times about Michael Jordan leading a hard-line group of owners into this weekend’s talks:
The Jordan-led faction backed an initial proposal that would have cut the players’ share to 37 percent (from 57), eliminated guaranteed contracts, rolled back current salaries and imposed a hard salary cap. The league has since dropped all of those demands, over the objections of those owners.
My first reaction to reading that was to laugh out loud. Really? Well, no wonder we don’t have a new CBA. Such a stance is not only ridiculous, it’s insulting. Of course the Players wouldn’t take the Owners seriously if that’s what they wanted to offer. Yikes – and you thought their 46% offer was drastic.
It has to be pointed out again and again that from the beginning this was never going to be a negotiation. The Owners were going to call all the shots, make all the decisions on the major issues, and if the Players didn’t like it they were welcome to not sign a deal. In every iteration of leaked CBA details, the Players have given up more and more.
Remember, this past season they earned 57% of BRI to 43% for the owners. The Players were willing to give up a couple points from the very beginning because they, like everyone else in the nation, knew the past few years were hard for business. We’ve all seen it, heard about it, and lived it. Before talks even began, the Players had made a concession.
Now all the talk is how seemingly close the two sides are, with stories about how much the Owners have given up to get that close. Using “concession” with regards to the Owners and these CBA talks is disingenuous to the Players. The Owners’ concessions are relative from a theoretical starting point, while the Players’ concessions are real, coming down from 57%.
Word on the street is most Players would agree to anything the Owners put on the table that is 50-50 or higher for the Players. Some players – Boston Celtics free agent forward Glen Davis comes to mind – have even said it’s obvious the two sides should just split the difference, referring to the Owners at 50-50 and the Players at 52-48, claiming a 51-49 edge to the Players works for all. Unfortunately, just like in politics, it’s better to learn the issues before commenting.
A flat 50-50 deal is not on the table. The Owners have not agreed they would go that high. Instead, Commissioner David Stern indicated to the Players he feels he can convince the Owners to agree to that – those are two very different things. It’s quite unlikely Stern could pull that off, not with owners in the room who apparently wanted a 63-37 advantage.
So if 50-50 isn’t really on the table, there will be no splitting the difference to a 51-49 tip to the Players. It’s simply not feasible, so speaking out saying that’s what should be done is…premature.
I don’t have a dog in this fight, other than I want to see games just like any other fan of the NBA. Well, and I’d sure love to write about games and stats and trends and trade rumors more than any of this, that’s for sure. (At one point last season I got sick of the trade rumors, and today I find myself wishing for daily Carmelo Anthony updates.)
I can listen to both sides and I see where they are coming from; each side has pros and cons to their stance. But this is a negotiation, and neither side gets everything they want. In fact, there’s a quote out there somewhere about how the best negotiated deals are the ones both sides can live with and neither feels taken advantage of, which isn’t going to happen here. The reality is the Players can’t go anywhere else and earn the money they do in the NBA under any set of rules, and the Owners can’t go find other players, because the quality simply isn’t there.
The Owners and the Players need each other, they need a new deal, and they need to work together. They need to recognize and respect the stance on each issue of the other, and they need to learn the art of compromise.
Until that happens, this lockout isn’t going to end.