Now that the NBA has joined the NFL in lockout mode, it is time to think about what we are going to do with all our new free time. For some, there will be wailings, dismay and disgust. How can all these guys take away our gusto? What right do they have to do this? They have every right. Remember, this is just a part of the entertainment business, and if the owners of a business want to take a hiatus, that is their prerogative. But we might find we can live without them.
During the ubiquitous baseball strikes of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, I was sufficiently upset to think about how to solve the problems of the club owners and the players. Working with my friend Paul Weiler at Harvard Law School, we even developed a plan for a national blue ribbon panel of neutrals that would advise the President (Clinton, at that time) about the baseball strike and who should bear the public's scorn. As a result, we thought, there would be such public pressure placed on the offending party that there would be an immediate settlement. Instead, the Clinton administration decided to appoint Bill Usery, a distinguished labor mediator, to bring the parties together and encourage them to make peace. By all accounts, that mediation process proved to be a disaster, but I am not sure that our efforts would have been any more successful. Ultimately, it was a misstep by the baseball owners -- a unilateral change in terms and conditions of employment before the parties had bargained to an impasse on the issues -- that led the MLB Players Association to the Labor Board, which, in turn, moved in federal court for an injunction against the baseball club owners.
Now we are faced with the clear prospect of a year without professional basketball. The word that has leaked out of the negotiations is that the parties are so far apart it could be spring before they reach an accommodation. Of course, there is plenty of time between now and the first NBA game of the season in the fall, but there seems to be little reason for optimism. The NBA owners, many of whom have only recently purchased their franchises, seem committed to changing the financial structure of the League. They certainly are entitled to try to do that. Remember that the essential goal of their bargaining is to control not the players, but other owners from emulating the late George Steinbrenner and blowing the salary scale out of the water. They want -- and likely need -- the Players Association to control them!
Many will read about the multimillion dollar salaries of the players and wonder how things arrived at such a state. The free market is a strange and wondrous mechanism. It allows salaries to rise to meet demand. Someone offered each one of these players their enormous salaries. As far as I know, no one has ever forced an owner to offer these amounts at the point of a gun.
Each owner is faced with the possibility that signing one player would actually allow his club to reach the playoffs and one more superstar after that might even cinch an NBA title. (Bring together Labron, D-Wade and Bosh and you will have five, six or seven championships in a row... What ever happened to that?) It is unlikely to imagine that happening in any other team sport. The NBA's now-expired soft cap had enough holes in it to allow the owners to do themselves in. They want a harder cap like the NFL or a really, really hard cap like the NHL. It is no coincidence that six NBA owners also own NHL franchises and have seen the benefits of a year-long lockout which can crush a labor organization.
On the other hand, it is almost time to feel good about football. My prediction in this blog made months ago was that the NFL would not miss any meaningful games this coming season, and I stand by that. We should have a contract within a few weeks and certainly by the end of the month. The only thing that could stand in the way would be a resounding decision by the Eighth Circuit giving some NFL club owners hope that with just a little more patience they can do what the NHL accomplished. My guess is that the Circuit Court does not want to disrupt the prospects for a bargain and will stay its hand.
And so, we will have pro football, but no pro basketball. What do we do with all our free time? There will be hockey. (By the start of the NHL season, every person living in New England would have touched Lord Stanley's Cup, drunk Sam Adams out of it and brought it home for dinner. Someone will then suggest that it is time to lace up the skates again.) We also have the semi-professional game called college basketball. You might also try reading.