Just stop it

"I want a sack of money THIS big"

David Stern wants you to know: the owners are doing all they can to have a season next year. Perhaps, they’ve already done all they can.

And so it all comes down to this weekend, he tells us: if the union and owners can’t make strides, the league will be sitting this season out.

You have to hand it to Stern and the owners, two entities I will unavoidably conflate in this post. After all, Stern wants a season, he just has to. Right now he’s just representing the owners’ interest, because that’s what they pay him whatever they pay him to do. As such he’s casted as both the unwilling executioner of the owners’ greedy wishes with his exasperated voice of commonsense, and the foreboding spewer of PR scare tactics and misinformation.

That $300 million. That’s the reason we can’t be mad at the owners. Because how ludicrous would it be for anyone to begrudge a businessman trying to avoid losing money? The best part about this lie is it’s simplicity. In an Orwellian sense, it’s nearly impossible to contradict because it has no meaning. It’s a single, very limited way of looking at the balance sheet (for one, it ignores the vertical integration of revenue streams for owners that also own their stadiums). It uses complex, opaque reasoning to arrive at its inescapably simple conclusion.

But the fact is that the team making money is not the same as making money by owning a team.

NBA teams aren’t publicly traded entities, or even discreet businesses at all; they’re franchises within a state-sanctioned monopoly. They don’t have an obligation to make money each quarter. There are no shareholder meetings full of people looking to profit off of the success of the team, just fan bases that invest their time, passion and earnings into an enthralling diversion.

Meanwhile, what’s the hard evidence that proves keeping NBA player costs lower will keep teams from spending their way out of profitability? There is a faction of owners that will always spend whatever it takes to give their teams the best chance to win. If that dough isn’t going into players, it will be going into new technologies, better facilities or faster jets. Profitability isn’t and hasn’t been the motive for so many decisions, it seems foolish to expect fiscal responsibility will ever be the norm in the ownership ranks.

On the PR front, the owners have a couple things going for them. One is that almost no one has any emotional attachment to these guys. LeBron James tweeting about his retreating hairline causes more of a stir than Donald Sterling being a convicted racist while owning a team full of black players. As vile a slumlord as Sterling may be, it’s somehow hard–especially for white people, in this instance–to get really mad at someone you don’t care about. Sure, certain fan bases are passionately for or against their own owners, but you won’t meet many Atlanta Hawk fans who truly despise Micky Arison and make jokey photoshop art depicting him as an infant.

In any case, the anger you can muster for the owners is typically displaced onto Stern, whose arm is being twisted by hardline owners (he wants to have a season more than anyone!) even as he removes the safety on the gun pointed at the 2011-12 season.

As symbols for group displeasure go, the owners are a hard target. Somehow, it real outrage seems difficult even for someone who would decry the owners for locking the players out, suing them, asking to keep money already owed to players, and demanding a huge pay cut over an unprecedented 10 year contract that divorces league success from player pay while refusing to discuss any internal adjustments to close the exploding gap in team-by-team revenues.

See Stern imposed heavy fines on any chatty owners because keeping them out of the media keeps them from becoming symbols of fat cattery.

Thank the sweet lord for Ted Leonsis, who said this on his blog:

Economic Success has somehow become the new boogie man; some in the Democratic party are now casting about for enemies and business leaders and anyone who has achieved success in terms of rank or fiscal success is being cast as a bad guy in a black hat. This is counter to the American Dream and is really turning off so many people that love American and basically carry our country on their back by paying taxes and by employing people and creating GDP.

On the one hand this is just the kind of anti-populist rhetoric the NBA players could use. As Dave Zirin expertly points out, the sentiment of this quotation does not exactly engender sympathy from the 20% of America that is unemployed. The logic goes that superrich people like Ted Leonsis are carrying a greater share of the GDP (because other people have less money, greater wealth inequality, etc) so he should be contributing less through taxes (assumedly so that he can personally redistribute it to the aforementioned poor). So really, carrying the economy means having more money relative to the rest of Americans and refusing to contribute a small percentage more than he already does to government programs aimed at the poor. Makes (no) sense.

But this is becoming a shockingly widespread attitude. Euphemisms like “the entrepreneurial class” and “job-creators” mask what is really just rich people, indiscriminate of whether they were marketing executives who got out of AOL before it tanked or they were just handed an enormous sum of money at birth. The NBA owners dot the Forbes 400. For some reason, the people we must protect, as a nation and a league, are the people most equipped to protect themselves.

And protect themselves they do. When you have a bunch of money you can purchase political power in either party that goes far beyond the one vote cast in the ballot box. The Koch brothers have founded a number of puppet think tanks to represent their destructive personal views as the views of well-reasoned intellectuals.

So this general pathos of outrage on behalf of the besieged wealthy of America is also in the owners’ favor. Well I for one don’t give a rat’s ass if billionaire Pacers owner Herb Simon is losing $10 million dollars each year on his ownership stake. I don’t!

I could be persuaded by the idea that the NBA will be a better league with a salary cap system that better rewards smart front offices. I don’t think you can really legislate competitive balance (geography being a major factor that Utah and Cleveland can’t overcome), but I see the benefits of encouraging smart, forward thinking front offices.

I could be persuaded by the idea that employees who get paid more when the business makes money be asked to take a pay cut in down times. But calling an NBA team a traditional business is akin to the utterly facile metaphor that the US government is a family that just needs to “live within its means.” Both are mindlessly reductive: the first by failing to take into account all the ancillary financial, political and “psychic” benefits that come from electing to purchase and operate an NBA franchise, the second by pretending as though our national debt is at all comparable to personal credit card debt.

I could also be persuaded to care about the low-level team and league employees and low-wage stadium workers who will be adversely affected (read: out of a job) by a lockout.

But mostly I care that there is a season this winter, and that the best NBA basketball in nearly thirty years be allowed to flourish. I care that something I love continue to be. And I care that at every turn, the owners have been the aggressors in risking those jobs and this season.

Get this: even by the NBA’s own accounting, there are only twenty two people (of the richest thirty men associated with the sport) who “lose money” in the current system. That’s of course if you don’t count the taxpayers who are by and large funding new stadiums all over the country, an investment that’s never been shown to be profitable.

These thirty tortured souls must bear the unthinkable burden of bringing joy and entertainment to a city of adoring fans. Owners venerate teams as a public trust and source of local economic growth when it’s time to get a new stadium, but don’t seem too willing to make good on that promise when it’s not as profitable as selling rancid loans to working stiffs.

Without an NBA team, the average owner would be just another really rich dude. Owning an NBA team is a (very expensive) way to be relevant and cool and important in ways that simply having tons of cash can’t make you. We get it: it’s awesome, you’re awesome, the NBA is awesome.

If you don’t think owners have an obligation to their fans to uphold a “public trust,” you won’t begrudge the thirty of them canceling a season to get a bunch more money for themselves. In this business being that wealthy means you’ve got the ability and right to bully the players into giving up their lunch money (to be fair, players eat this for lunch).

Look at you, you big, tough guys. Congratulations on your lockout.

Now quit it. Get it done. Take the hundreds of millions you’ve won in the last few months through shrewd, tough negotiating and give me back my NBA.


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