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NBA players have screwed up their lockout strategy

The NBA players’ union knew the league and its owners would be shrewd negotiators. Why weren’t they better prepared?


Billy Hunter, executive director of the NBPA, has come under fire for his handling of lockout negotiations.

The NBA lockout is largely a battle between billionaires and millionaires. It’s a fight about how the league’s owners and players will split annual revenues of roughly $4 billion. It has devolved, at times, into a PR war that matters only to the people waging it.

And it’s a fight for which even the sport’s most ardent followers have little sympathy—let alone the millions of casual fans for whom basketball is a segue way between football and summer baseball—in a time when stories of corporate greed, taxation and government bailouts loom large in the headlines.

That fight went to an even darker place Monday, when the players decided to dissolve their union and file antitrust action against the league. “We’ve arrived at the conclusion that the collective bargaining process has completely broken down,” said Billy Hunter, executive director of the National Basketball Players Association.

The union’s decision—maybe their one piece of leverage in what’s been a one-sided negotiation—puts the upcoming season in jeopardy.

But that decision also squanders any public support the players have built in the past 138 days. It also sheds light on how unprepared their union was for a protracted labour stoppage.

Hunter has said that Stern, during a 2007 meeting, talked about how owners were willing to lock out players and lose an entire season in order to get a favourable collective bargaining agreement. The players’ union knew that small market teams were itching for a severe rollback in revenue sharing and other system issues—a line of thinking that only gained support when the economic downturn hit. They knew that Stern, nearing the end of his tenure as commissioner, would be looking for a decisive victory.

And yet the players, in countless press conferences, complain about how the league is not negotiating in good faith.

They’ve been given every indication the league was targeting a massively lopsided victory—and were willing to lose games to achieve it. Still, the NBPA did nothing to create additional leverage, thus ensuring the owners could set the agenda for negotiations.

The union’s ineptness was best-distilled in a series of tweets from Michael Grange, writer for Sportsnet Magazine. Near the end of his rant, Grange tweeted: “Their best plan has been to hope for the best. Gotta plan for the worst and otherwise figure out how to make things happen.” Knowing what the players have known and for how long, their negotiation strategy appears incredibly naïve.

To make matters worse, the union has been dogged by rumours of internal divisions, with unnamed sources firing shots at both Hunter and Derek Fisher, the union’s president, through prominent sportswriters. Player representatives have been criticized for not adequately explaining the terms of proposed deals to their teammates. And some of the league’s brightest and most eloquent players and union members—Steve Nash, Ray Allen, Dirk Nowitzki and Grant Hill, to name a few—have been decidedly low-key during the negotiations.

Instead, players are tweeting their labour positions under hashtags like #letusplay, #standunited and #basketballneverstops, as if social media savvy can be morphed into anything resembling leverage.

The court of public opinion, however, is maybe the sole place where the players are winning—at least for the time being. In most sports lockouts, the resounding and simplistic opinion is that multimillionaire athletes get to play a game for a living and are extremely well-paid for their efforts, often too much.

But in this lockout, Stern and the league’s owners have been painted as egomaniacal bullies, eager to force the players’ union into accepting an ultimatum that potentially undervalues their worth. NBA players, when you look at average annual salaries, already earn more than athletes in North America’s other pro leagues. And yet they enjoy a groundswell of public support.

Even still, that pro-player support can only last so long. In dissolving their union, and planting the seeds for a court room showdown, the players have finally exercised their leverage. Maybe it was their only remaining option in the bargaining process. Maybe it stirs the owners to action.

But maybe it fans flames on increasingly bitter and immature negotiations, leading to a cancelled season. Much like NHL players in their last lockout, NBA players could lose three ways: a missed season, missed paycheques and no significant gains for those losses.

And if that’s the case—that the NBA loses a season just months after enjoying one of its most successful in the last 15 years—the owners won’t be the sole parties at blame. People will ask why the players weren’t adequately prepared and why it took them so long to take decisive action. Some will ask why they supported the players’ cause in the first place.