I have been trying to write this column for several days. I have thought and thought, and spent several hours writing, resulting in nothing. I am just too angry. My anger about the NBA LOCKOUT has nothing to do with the players. I am actually proud of their courage and their refusal to kowtow in the face of pressure to accept an unfair proposal. I am happy they told David Stern to file his ultimatum under “U” for unacceptable. In fact, when I heard the news on Monday that the players indeed rejected the proposal, I found myself giving a little fist pump. The prospect of a lost NBA season is disheartening at one level, yet I am encouraged by their refusal to accept an unjust economic arrangement.
Despite a public narrative that continually focuses on money as the only issue of contention, the LOCKOUT isn’t simply about how to split NBA pie. It isn’t about greedy, out-of-touch players that already make millions for playing a game (this idea is so disrespectful to not only their talents but their hard work and dedication).
Players have already given up billions of dollars when they apparently agreed to a 50/50 split (or thereabouts). Yet that wasn’t enough for the owners. Their proposal would dramatically restrict player movement, ostensibly ending much of free agency. The LOCKOUT in many ways is an effort to roll back free agency, to overturn the legacies of Curt Flood and to create a system where owners don’t have to compete for the services of all players (Ric Bucher made this point eloquently).
The proposed structural changes would dramatically alter the landscape of the NBA, severely limiting the options and free agency potential of NBA players. In 2010-2011, where the players received 57% of basketball related income, the salary cap was $58.044 million; that year teams paid a tax at $70.307 million. If the owners have their way, these numbers would fall to $50,915,789 for the cap and $61,672,807 for the luxury tax. So what does this mean? It means, that only 10 teams would be under the salary cap (these calculations include potential rookie salaries). It means that 14 teams would be paying a luxury tax, which would be higher in the new system. It means that the many teams that have empty roster spots would have little or no money to spend on free agents. Faced with a luxury tax and only able to use a reduced exception that allows teams to exceed the salary cap, the new system is an assault on free agency and “free-market capitalism.” It allows teams to ostensibly eliminate player leverage in getting the most possible money.
Imagine if this system existed in other industries. Imagine if every company in your respective field was restricted in how much money they could spend on salaries. Imagine if these companies were taxed if they spent over a certain threshold. How would it impact your ability to garner employment? How would it impact your ability to move from one company to the next? How would it impact your ability to increase your salary because two competitors were forced to compete for your services? What the owners and David Stern are trying to do, through the reduction of the BRI, through the changes in the mid-level of exception, and the tax structure is to limit the power and choice of the players. It will invariably depress wages, bolster profits for owners, kill the NBA’s middle-class, and otherwise limit player power.
The owners’ proposal will likely HURT many teams and the quality of their basketball. Look at the Boston Celtics: they have 7 players under contract for the 2011-2012 year, meaning they would need 5 more players just to get the 12-person minimum (teams often carry 15 players). Based on estimates of a 50/50 BRI split, the Celtics would be roughly $15 million dollars over the cap, meaning that in order to fill out their roster they would be limited to minimum veteran salaries and one exception (unless they sign players previously under contract in 2010-2011). They would be forced to pay a tax for every dollar they spend. How do you think that will impact player movement? How will it impact jobs? What team will be willing and able to sign players beyond 12-man roster? As much as it pains me to say this (as someone born and raised in Los Angeles), the proposal would be horrid for a team like the Celtics.
The NBA LOCKOUT is not about fans, despite claims that it is about helping the small-market teams and their fans. As I have said before, I don’t buy the parity argument. I buy it even less as it imagines the LOCKOUT as a struggle to protect small market teams from future player exodus. Focusing on LeBron James, Deron Williams, and Carmelo Anthony, all of whom left their teams for “greener” pastures in big markets, this argument focuses on the lack of fairness to the fans in these respective cities. They cite the potential exits of Chris Paul and Dwight Howard as further evidence that the NBA needs structural change. I am angered that anyone accepts this seriously flawed argument. Whether thinking about the success of the Mavs or Spurs, or the failures of the Clippers, Knicks and the Warriors, market size does not guarantee success or failure. It isn’t about the fans or fixing a broken system, but enhancing owner profits and further creating a league where players are treated as “the help.” It is about owners asserting their power to control the players.
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