NBA owners: it’s not about you, and never will be

All along we’ve heard that David Stern, more than anything, just wants a deal. Though hardline owners have at times stood in the way of rationality, it’s not hard to imagine Stern shaking his head sadly before donning his regretful toad expression and delivering ultimatums to the players union and media. This weekend Stern took to the airwaves and Twitterverse to convey one message: the owners have made their final deal, and now whether or not there is a season is in the players’ hands.

It’s fair to assume that the players know, despite the precedent of unenforced ultimatums, a significantly improved offer is unlikely to come further down the road, and that the ability to play 72 games lessens the financial impact of the lockout.

However there are two major impediments to the players taking this deal, one is that it’s just way less money than they used to make, a 12% decrease in their share of NBA BRI. That hurts, but the other issue, one that appears to be just as serious, is pride. The players have been in a defensive posture from the beginning, and swallowing a paycut hurts a lot more when it’s jammed down your throat along with new policies that curtail players’ ability to choose where they play, and artificially depreciate their value.

Somehow, the NBA has been successful in consistently extracting monetary concessions, but it has been far less tactful in its push to gain “systemic changes.”

David Stern’s PR blitz this weekend was especially repugnant, as he framed the impasse as, essentially, a consequence of players who don’t know what’s best for them being manipulated by evil agents: “I just think that the players aren’t getting the information, the true information from their agents, who are banding together, sort of the coalition of the greedy and the mendacious, to do whatever they can not to have fewer opportunities for the agents to make money.”

The condescension is palpable. This line speaks to a real and disheartening gap between how owners see players and the reality of the league. Stern’s stance preys on an ugly assumption that for all the physical gifts that NBA players have, they lack the intellectual capacity to understand their best interest.

This isn’t racism per se, but it evokes a certain paradigm–these rich black guys don’t know how good they got it—that’s hard to mistake and for the players, must be harder to stomach.

The question is: why would Stern and the owners take the angle, knowing that it can do little but inflame the pride of the players? I suspect that the autonomy of star players: exercising their actual market value not in pay, but in influence over where they play, and with whom, is at the heart of the owners’ demands for system changes.

Surely these so called system issues matter, and will impact the league, but when Stern and deputy commissioner Adam Silver wax holy about the bright future of 30 contenders and stars that stay in one city for their whole careers, it smacks of intellectual dishonesty. How could anyone in their positions entirely misunderstand the explosion in NBA interest that LeBron’s free agency occasioned?

That heartache in Cleveland and the scandal in Miami didn’t dent the league’s reputation, far from it! Any blogger or columnist knows that LeBron is a hot button topic because of the drama surrounding how he chose where to work. James is, by and large, a fairly boring and opaque character off the court, but the Decision infused life into his mannequin-like personality.

The NBA has and always will thrive on individual personalities. The system changes proposed by the NBA—namely those designed to restrict player movement and discourage the best players from switching teams even after they have fulfilled their contract with their current team—contradicts the NBA’s best interest by decreasing the power and agency of the league’s most compelling characters.

If the goal of the league truly is to grow, it must recognize that national drama created by player movement is a crucial part of building a national TV audience, the obvious prerequisite to the type of national broadcast rights deals that can fatten the wallets of even slouching, self-destructive franchises (of which there will always be plenty so long as owners continue to hire and overpay undeserving front office personnel).

No, this oak-headed insistence on “systemic improvement” is not for the good of the league or its bottom line, though it gives owners a sense of control, however illusory it may be. Unlike NBA players, who have earned the right to call themselves the best in the world, NBA owners have no basis to believe in their merit as franchise operators other than the possession of the wealth requisite to purchase a team.

But the ultimatums, threats and public rhetoric all implies a desire to deny this dynamic and diminish the agency of the true stars of the NBA.

No matter if the owners get everything they want, the NBA will remain a players’ league. The ultimate motivation of this systemic tinkering is to augment owner cash and control; its ultimate consequence a decrease in drama, interest, and dollars.


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  2. 2011 NBA CBA Rumblings: What Constitutes “Loss” for NBA Owners?
  3. “Ignarus” on the decertification talk
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