Passing Judgment – The NBA Lockout

I hope you like hockey.  That is going to become the prevalent theme for sports fans come November if things don’t change in the NFL or the NBA.  The NFL lockout has been in place for almost four months, and despite rumors of a new collective bargaining agreement being reached in the near future, there is still doubt whether a deal can get done in time to avoid missing portions of the season.  Now, the NBA can be added to the list of major sports suffering from a work stoppage.  As of 12:01 AM on July 1, 2011, the NBA owners officially have locked out the players upon the expiration of the current collective bargaining agreement.  The first hard-felt loss in this process was the fact that free agency did not open as it normally does on July 1.  This marked a stark contrast to one year ago when LeBron James and his circus sideshow teased with several teams by making himself available to be pitched on the idea of joining those teams.

Knowing that this was going to go to the deadline, the NBA owners and players had been engaging in discussions to try and bridge the gap between their differences on several issues, including a new salary cap, total salaries, and revenue sharing.  Despite the league experiencing its biggest success since 1998, man of its owners did not share in that success.  Collectively, the owners claim to have lost at least $300,000,000 this past season with only eight of the 30 NBA teams making a profit.

While the NFL has instituted various rules and restrictions during the lockout preventing team members from having contact with the players, the NBA has taken it a step further in terms of the penalties and consequences for such actions.  For example, teams will be fined $1,000,000 if there is contact between the staff and members during the lockout period.  Additionally, references to players and all images have been removed from team websites.

Owners want to change the salary cap structure and institute a hard cap or flex cap that players feel is close to a hard cap (this was instituted by the NHL after the 2004-05 season was lost due to a lockout, and the players ended up ceding to a hard salary cap as demanded by the owners).  The NBA owners want to relieve spending so teams do not go over the cap, as opposed to the current salary cap where teams went well over the cap to contend for championships (anyone remember where a certain somebody took his talents last year?).

Another issue at the heart of this labor dispute is revenue sharing.  The owners want to overhaul the entire system that has guaranteed the players receive 57% of all revenue.  The owners want to create a system where small market teams can compete with the bigger markets, and where all teams turn a profit as compared to the eight that did in 2010/2011. 

Several NBA owners also own NHL teams.  The memory of the 2004/2005 NHL season that was lost is fresh in their memories as those owners wanted to completely change the system.  After a stalemate lingered too long, the season was cancelled and the players eventually capitulated to the owners’ demands.  Could that be the same M.O. with these NBA owners?  Deputy NBA Commissioner Adam Silver stressed that no owner wants the 2011/2012 season to be lost. 

Not that there is ever an ideal time to have a work stoppage in one of the major sports, but the NBA is coming off of one its most popular and prosperous seasons.  With the soap opera that was LeBron James and the Miami Heat, the renaissance of the New York Knicks, the conclusion of Phil Jackson’s career, the dramatic and exciting NBA playoffs, and the storybook championship for Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd, the NBA was as popular as ever in recent years as indicated by the enormous TV ratings and merchandise sales.  Commissioner David Stern stated that he is “resigned to the potential damage that [the lockout] can cause to the NBA.”  He went on further to say: “If we were out as long as it appears the NFL will be out, even on a best-case scenario, given the length of our season, that would take us to a place that would assure a lot, I think, more damage because we have such a long season,”

When a deal does get reached is anyone’s guess.  But it is a safe bet it will not happen anytime soon.  According to ESPN.com, NBPA union executive director Billy Hunter said the sides hoped to meet again in about two weeks and would perhaps start with other topics instead of going right back to economics.  “Progress is made the more time you have the opportunity to sit down and work with each other,” NBPA president and Los Angeles Lakers guard Derek Fisher said in an interview on ESPN Radio.”

But as fans, much like the NFL, this has to make us sick.  In a world with a struggling economy, high unemployment rates, and multiple wars being fought on various foreign fronts, it is a difficult pill to swallow for Joe Q. Public to hear a bunch of millionaires fight over who gets what percentage of even more millions of dollars.  New Orleans star guard Chris Paul understands this.   “At the end of the day, we just want to do what’s right. We want a fair deal. We just want to hoop. Like I’ve said before, it’s all about our fans. I think the worst thing about this whole situation is our fans.  They want to see us play.”

Chris Paul is right.  Having a lengthy work stoppage and potentially missing the entire season will make us yearn for the days of when star players have hour-long ESPN specials telling us where they are taking their talents. 

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