Sports

Sheehan ’12: Labor, lockouts and liars

By
Sports Columnist
Thursday, October 13, 2011

“Go (expletive) yourselves.”

I sat back in my chair and wrinkled my forehead at what I had just written. An Ivy League education in writing and this was the best I could muster. How did I get to this point? I thought back to last year, which featured the most entertaining NBA season in recent memory. It was then that the NBA solidified itself as my favorite sports league. Now here we are, no more than four months later, and labor disagreements have compounded into a fierce lockout. Just like that, all of those good feelings have been flushed down the toilet.

NBA commissioner David Stern cancelled the first two weeks of the regular season Monday after an 11th-hour deal for a new collective bargaining agreement fell through and I — like many other fans — stirred myself to write an impassioned letter. Two hours later, those three words were still all I could think of. The point of vocabulary is finding precisely the right way to express what you want to communicate. But with this NBA lockout, I don’t need a thesaurus or meticulous sentence structure to voice my displeasure. I don’t need to select my vocabulary with the measured delicacy that defined Jane Austen. I just need a verb, a crass slang term and a reflexive pronoun.

“Why, that seems a bit dramatic and overblown, don’t you think, Sam?” you might ask. Maybe, but there are only a few reasons that basketball isn’t being played right now and they are all things that a four-year-old could figure out. The NBA employs thousands of people a year and stimulates the economies of participating cities, and that’s important to remember when discussing this. This is about more than just billionaires versus millionaires. This is about a significant number of jobs across the country. So why are these people missing two weeks of pay? Let’s find out.

Point #1: NBA teams are too poorly run.

The reason the owners are taking such a hard line on this lockout is because they claim they lost $370 million last season. They want a bigger slice of the profits by paying less to players. There has been speculation that the owners have been using some “creative accounting” to make their losses seem worse, but let’s assume that they are telling the truth.

The smaller market teams are losing money simply because they have to pay more to keep up with larger market teams and attract more players. But this isn’t feasible because teams like the Memphis Grizzlies don’t make as much money as teams like the Lakers. Right now, in order to keep things fair, when a team spends more money than the “soft cap” of $58 million, they have to pay a one dollar “luxury tax” for every dollar they are over.

The problem is that this doesn’t serve its purpose of discouraging these large-market teams, and they just absorb the tax to get the best players. For that reason, unless you have a stellar general manager, your team doesn’t really have a chance, and therefore won’t get fans.

But you can’t have just six teams in the NBA, so the owners need to figure out a revenue sharing plan where the larger-market teams share their profits with the smaller-market teams in order to keep them afloat.

It only gets more infuriating when you start to look at the teams and how they are spending those player salaries. Take Eddy Curry, who never set foot on a court last year. He was paid over $11 million for this season. You could also call that number 1/50th of the total losses. That’s one single player!

How was he paid so much? He was given a long-term contract by a team that was panicking and felt like they needed to spend their money. It would be like if a company lured bad employees to jobs by guaranteeing them five years of pay, then asking the good employees to take a pay cut because they gave all the money to the employees who no longer do any work. That leads me to my next point.

Point #2: The players are unionized and are forced to defend bad players.

Oh, you thought this was all on the owners, didn’t you? Too bad, players. You guys have a hand in this as well. The owners are proposing certain safeguards to save themselves from their own stupidity. Shorter contracts and a lower “hard cap” — a salary total that teams can’t go over — would force teams to be more frugal and stop them from wasting money gambling on marginal players. The problem is that half of the union is made up of below-average players, and they don’t want this to happen. They love it when teams overvalue them and pay them money that submarines the franchise for a couple of years. The better players have to honor this because, well, they are a union — solidarity is kind of the point. This gives the owners an opening to squawk about how much money they are losing, which brings us to the final point.

Point #3: The owners are treating their NBA teams like a business.

The fantastic author Malcolm Gladwell wrote a piece for Grantland.com two months ago debunking the theory that buying an NBA team is a business decision. He claims it’s done for the owner’s egos, and I agree. If a man told you that he had bought a Matisse, but he was frustrated with the costs of keeping it in good condition and that he wanted it to start generating money for him, you would call him unreasonable. He bought the painting to look at and show to other people as a status symbol. To pretend that he bought it as a money-generator is silly.

A man buys an NBA team because he loves basketball or because he wants to be recognized as a man who can make important decisions that will affect a lot of people. Outside of the business world, I don’t think many people care about Robert Kraft. But because he owns the Patriots, construction workers from the South End of Boston affectionately call him “Good Ol’ Bob.”

So by all means, NBA owners, whine about your missing $370 million as though you didn’t expect to lose money. You are all some of the smartest businessmen in the world, and you are going to claim that you didn’t know there would be risks? I think you did. I think you knew you’d be able to feign incompetence until the existing collective bargaining agreement was up so you could have your metaphoric Matisse and get the artist to pay for it. All it’s going to take is putting a couple thousand people out of work for the foreseeable future.

I tried for so long to figure out what I wanted to say to you men. With all the words I have at my disposal, I’ve chosen carefully.

“Go (expletive) yourselves.”

Seriously.

Sam Sheehan ’12 is really disappointing his eighth grade English teacher right now. Talk sports with him at sam_sheehan@brown.edu or follow him on Twitter @SamSheehan.