Thursday, December 1, 2011


The National Basketball Association lockout has been settled and the league says it will resume play on Christmas Day. Good. I enjoy basketball in all its forms and that includes the professional one. No doubt about it, those giraffes can play, and it’s a treat to watch them.

Nonetheless, the delay of the NBA season didn’t much distress me. Our sports calendar is so crowded that entertainment aplenty always is near at hand, and the last several weeks have been no exception. I’ve even tuned in to a few of the international soccer matches that a couple of Fox cable channels regularly offer. I can’t say I watched them whistle-to-whistle, but I liked what I saw. We Yanks stick up our noses at The Game the Rest of the World Loves Best, but we shouldn’t. Those guys can play, too.

So what are we to think of the agreement that ended the NBA unpleasantness? Nothing much that hasn’t occurred already. Conclusion No. 1 is that it’s their game (the owners’ and players’), not ours, and no matter how much we might love our favorite teams we shouldn’t believe otherwise. No. 2 is to remind ourselves that in big-time pro sports the real economic warfare isn’t between the owners and the players but between the owners and the owners, and that their so-called labor agreements are aimed mainly at restraining their own competitive urges. “Stop me before I spend again!” the owners plead, and at some point the players always say “okay.”

That said, though, we must resist the cliché that no one wins in a strike or lockout. Make no mistake, the owners won this one. Raising their cut of their league’s revenues (reportedly about $4.3 billion last season) to about 50% from 43% puts at least $300 million more into their pockets annually over the agreement’s 10-year term, or about what they say they’ve lost collectively in each of the past few seasons. Considering that those losses probably were overstated for bargaining purposes (they always are), the suits will be well ahead of the game.

But the longer the lockout continued the worse it would have been for the players. That’s because youth is fleeting while wealth endures, giving the owners a large and intrinsic edge in all such contests.

The real-world proof of that came from the lockout that cost the National Hockey League its entire 2004-05 season. The year before that showdown players’ salaries accounted for a reported 76% of NHL revenues. The settlement knocked that down to 54% and resulted in pay cuts averaging about 25% for every player then under contract. Team salary caps were instituted with fewer exceptions than the ones that survived the latest NBA settlement. Rookie salaries were severely capped. Add in the loss of an entire year’s salary, or about 20% of the average pro athlete’s career take, and you had a very cold winter in Hockeyland.

We fans know this, of course, but sympathy for the NBA players was scant during the recent bargaining. With an average annual salary of $5.1 million, and a median of about $2.3 million, they’re by far our best-paid team jocks, typically earning more in a year than most of us do in a lifetime. Comments made during the talks by a few players—and their union’s general counsel, for heaven’s sake—comparing the league to a plantation and its employees to slaves drew guffaws all around, undermining their cause and causing many to wonder what planet they were living on..

The talk these days about the 99% versus the 1% doesn’t do justice to the basketball pros’ singularity. In terms of physical attributes as well as income they’re in the top .001%, genetic geniuses whose height and agility set them apart in the most obvious of ways. Yeah, they must “work” to hone their skills and conditioning, but most of that consists of doing things regular people do for fun.

Today’s professional athletes like to compare themselves to entertainers whose unique talents entitle them to lush compensation, but that’s misleading all around. Movie stars can’t shine without the expensive accoutrements of their productions and even a song-and-dance man like Michael Jackson needed a vast array of musicians, other dancers, sound and lighting technicians and special-effects experts to put on a show worth big bucks at the box office.

The athlete’s context is more elaborate still, requiring not only a stage for its proper exhibition but also strong teammates, worthy opponents and contests with historical meaning. This the league provides. I suppose LeBron James could barnstorm with his version of the Washington Generals, but I think the public quickly would tire of that, as would he.

And so the basketballers will be back on court soon, and should be glad of it. The pro-football owners and players signed a new accord a few months ago amid much sturm und drang, and the baseballers are in the process of inking one without it, meaning that an era of labor peace lies ahead. That’ll free up the sports pages for more-interesting stuff, like box scores. Who says there’s no good news?

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