Sports metaphors pervade every crevice of American conversation, so it stands to reason that the National Basketball Association has opted to put aside dribbling and passing to instead turn itself into the ultimate metaphor for society writ large: The wealthiest of the wealthy refuse to distribute the spoils to protect the collective interest, and the whole thing breaks down, giving way to lawsuits, shouted recriminations, and a general state of disgust.
Strip away the complexities of the negotiations that have taken up recent months, culminating in the impasse that now apparently dooms the season, and the breakdown is remarkably straightforward. The NBA makes ridiculous amounts of money -- plenty of money to keep players and owners alike in a perpetual state of confusion over which Ferrari to drive today, which Armani suit to wear, and which reality television starlet to marry -- yet it cannot settle on a way to distribute the loot to keep everyone involved solvent.
A handful of big market owners are content to let the league disintegrate rather than give up some of their wealth. The smaller market teams are inclined to try to square their books by squeezing labor for concessions rather than try to persuade their big market brethren to share the profits that flow from having a league at all.
If this sounds familiar to you non-sports fans, that's because it runs parallel to the political story of our time. The United States, proud claimant to the title of richest nation in history, has plenty of money to spend on just about whatever it deems necessary. Yet so many crucial items supposedly can't be financed because of budget crises, so we fire public school teachers, shut down firehouses, and scrimp on research grants that might generate future economic growth. We refuse to extend emergency unemployment benefits and we cut subsidized childcare to poor single mothers. We defer maintenance on roads and bridges and dismantle public transportation.
Are we taking the country apart because we are a pauper nation? Hardly. We have rather convinced ourselves that we face shortages of public finance because of our unwillingness to tax rich people and distribute the proceeds to finance public goods.
And now one of those areas of life that ordinarily distracts us from such misfortune instead underscores it, opening new frontiers to American inequality.
The NBA has a problem of geography combined with gluttony. The gluttony part is obvious. The owners can't help themselves when it comes to throwing sums of money equivalent to the gross domestic product of Poland at whatever court messiah seems capable of getting their franchise on national television with regularity. This has created dramatic inflation for the services of the biggest stars.
As player contracts have swelled to nine figures, it has become all but impossible for smaller market teams to compete. Unless a franchise happens to be located in a metropolis flush with mortgage-backed securities (Knicks), Hollywood and porn industry cash (Lakers), Latin American wealth and narco-dollars (Miami Dream Team), Mayflower Old Money (Celtics), or pork belly futures (Bulls), it cannot possibly fill the seats with enough people willing to pay the equivalent of a month's rent in Cleveland to watch professional basketball players saunter through the paces on a Tuesday night. How are the Sacramento Kings supposed to come up with the money to field a team that can contend in the face of this sort of competition?
The solution to this problem does not require a doctorate in finance to unravel: Take the money that the whole league brings and distribute it so that every team can make payroll. The Knicks need the Kings and the other smaller market teams in order to fill out their 82 game schedule -- each game an opportunity to sell packing materials dressed up as popcorn, washed down by $12 beers.
But among the ranks of the big market owners, suggesting that redistribution is the fix sounds as sensible as suggesting that we solve the national budget deficit by seizing all golf courses and turning them into people's collective pig farms.
The smaller market teams have instead indulged the go-to move among American businesses facing a tough spot: They have tried to get more out of labor, demanding that the player's union to drop its previous 57 percent slice of league revenues to 50 percent.
The most aggressive owners have aimed at much bigger rollback of the revenue share. Indeed, in what surely qualifies for some sort of cosmic irony award, the leading proponent of this approach has been Michael Jordan, who once earned $30 million for a single season of his services on the court. Now that he is majority owner of the Charlotte franchise, he is acting somewhat like the Walmart of the NBA.
Labor, of course, is where this metaphor breaks down. Do not expect to see Kobe Bryant and Amare Stoudemire hoisting signs decrying corporate greed as they take their places in the Occupy Wall Street movement. They underscore a different American reality: The fact that superstars make their own rules, operating outside the established lines.
The biggest names will field mega-million-dollar offers from professional teams in Europe and Asia. And maybe they will start their own league, in which they keep more of the proceeds for themselves.
The richest Americans possess a form of protection that the richest basketball owners do not: They own the Congress. In the NBA, the owners are just a bunch of middle-aged guys with empty arenas and dormant television deals. They are distribution without content. It's the players who have the monopoly on the thing of value -- their skill -- which, alas, is not at all how things are for the rest of the American workforce.