Poor, poor, pitiful me

With the first two weeks of the season canceled, fans, players are writers are getting antsy. Throughout the tense negotiations and then, when we finally got the bad news, Twitter was a sea of nervous, self-serving yelps.

Something bad has happened, and so it’s customary to figure out who is at fault. There are two targets for our scorn, and neither seems inclined to move toward compromise. This creates a situation in which both sides appear equally guilty of creating, then prolonging this work stoppage.

But keep this in mind: Since 1999, the players and owners have played under essentially the same agreement. During that time, the league’s share of the TV market and ticket sales have grown, even through weak seasons (2004-2007) and a weaker economy. In 2006, following a disastrously disinteresting final between the Spurs and Pistons, the league and players seamlessly ratified what amounts to an extension of the 1999 deal.

Now, after the best NBA season in more than a decade, this dozen-year-old deal is so untenable that the NBA owners claim a complete system overhaul is necessary. So either everyone was asleep at the wheel in 1999 and 2005, or that $300 million figure is a fiction.

Another fact: Using the last deal–which again, lasted 12 years through down times–as a starting point for negotiation, only one side, the players, has offered anything.

But we are where we are because rather than the previous two deals, the claim of 22 teams losing around $450 million became the starting point. Despite the NBAPA never agreeing with the NBA’s figures publicly, the players union failed to effectively combat the NBA’s assertion of poverty. This matters only if you believe PR matters. Whether the NBA is full of crap doesn’t do much to change the leverage offered by the threat of a season cancellation.

“Good faith negotiating” is vaguely defined, but essentially requires both sides to engage in a give and take to reach a compromise. Just looking at the skeletal narrative laid out above, it is clear that no point have the NBA owners offered a single benefit that they did not enjoy for the past 12 years, and in the case of the deal length, much longer.

The players’ opportunity to combat this strongarm tactic evaporated when decertification was disregarded and as the appeal before the National Labor Board languishes in some file cabinet in New York. The players’ economic situation is clear and clearly getting worse with each game canceled.

But this lockout isn’t about players being paid too much, it’s about owners seeing an opportunity to get more money, and executing a viscous plan to claim it from a vulnerable labor market. As Patrick Ewing (almost) said, owners have a lot of money, but they spend a lot, too. Everyone can use more money.

There is a desire for fans and media members to consider “both sides of things,” but that’s a slippery slope. Yes the players make a ton of money playing basketball, but people also pay a ton of money to watch them play. Players just aren’t everyday people like you and me, these are mostly regular people with barely human talents. In a free market, many would be worth many times what they are paid today. The inverse is likely true as well, but NBA talent exists in what is very far from a free market system and it is impossible to determine the calculus of whether players are on aggregate overpaid compared to what they would get without salary caps and individual max contract limits.

The players aren’t exactly objects of sympathy, but let’s keep in mind that they didn’t cause the lockout, nor have they been unwilling to compromise.

Just because both sides have equal ability to end the lockout does not mean both sides are equally responsible for it continuing.

“Let Us Play” was an awful tactic for a number of reasons, the first of which is that any fan’s immediate response is “OK, then take the lesser deal and play!” The second is that the NFL already tried, and failed with that little stunt. The third is that fans just want a season and don’t really care if having one means beloved millionaires are, relatively, exploited by faceless billionaires. An emotional appeal doesn’t work with people who can’t sympathize with superhuman athletes.

Would a single writer or fan really care if the NBA players get 47% rather than 53% of BRI? As a result we’re all willing to believe or root for just about anything that points toward a resolution. The alluring phantasm of a 50-50 split appeals so succinctly to commonsense that it’s hard to remember that 50% of BRI is a completely arbitrary number that may or may not accomplish specific goal for either side.

Now some people are genuinely worried about players who support their whole extended families, or the stadium workers who will either be put on different work or find themselves out of part time work.

But one thing’s clear, and it plays right into the owners’ hands:

If there’s anyone we NBA fans have sympathy for, it’s ourselves.

Follow @beckleymason

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