NBA Lockout Heads to Court, Calling Season (and Jobs) Into Doubt

Patrick Glennon

Derek Fisher, President of the National Basketball Players Association, speaks to the media on November 14 in New York City.

An ongoing labor dispute could leave NBA stadiums empty throughout the planned 2011-2012 season.

The contentious battle between team owners — led by league commissioner David Stern — and the NBA Players Association (NBPA) spiraled out of control this month, when an unsatisfied NBPA voted unanimously to file an antitrust lawsuit against team owners in federal court. The lawsuit, which the association announced last week, will seek a legal judgment declaring the nearly five-month-old lockout illegal.

In response to the union’s decision to leave the bargaining table and take its fight to court, Stern commented that all concerned parties were entering the nuclear winter of the NBA.”

So far, all games scheduled through December 15 have been officially cancelled. Given recent developments, the prospect of any season at all seems bleak.

The previous lockout, which caused the 1998-1999 season to be shortened, resulted in a contract that expired in 2005. That year team owners and players negotiated another six-year contract guaranteeing that players receive 57 percent of all basketball-related income (BRI).

As that contract’s July 2011 expiration date drew close, the NBPA received a proposal from NBA owners detailing a dramatic restructuring of the league’s financial operations, including an overhaul of revenue sharing practices and the establishment of new salary regulations. The proposal also lowered players’ share of BRI from 57 percent to under 50 percent.

Recent concessions by the owners — such as a 50 percent split of BRI between owners and players — led some to believe that a compromise was imminent. Yet other measures unpopular with players — such as a clause making it easier to demote players to the D-League as well as restrictions on sign-and-trade agreements — ultimately resulted in deadlock.

In a letter obtained by ESPN, Billy Hunter and Derek Fisher (heads of the NBPA) wrote the following about the union’s decision to enter litigation:

For two and a half years and through more than 50 collective bargaining sessions, we sat at the table and attempted to negotiate a fair labor agreement with the owners. Last week, with the issuance of yet another ultimatum – a take-it-or-leave-it final offer of a long-term agreement with unacceptable terms – Commissioner Stern and the owners left us with no other option. It has become clear to us that we have exhausted our rights under the labor laws and continuing in that forum (collective bargaining) would not be in the best interests of the players.

In anticipation of a cancelled season, a number of noteworthy players have joined teams overseas: Deron Williams, from the Utah Jazz, has signed with Beşiktaş in Turkey; Tony Parker has gone back to his native France, joining ASVEL Basket; the Flying Tigers, a team based in Xinjiang, China, are chasing after several players, offering contracts to Dallas’ J.J. Barea and Atlanta’s Jamal Crawford.

Some accuse NBA team owners of being disinterested in the sport itself, willing to let an entire season slip by in order to push their designs onto the talent that actually brings in money. Sports writer Bill Simmons writes that heading into the summer of 2011, your average NBA franchise was more valuable for the investment itself than for the revenue it yielded. That’s pretty liberating — if you don’t care that your business stops, how can anyone possibly negotiate with you?”

In other words, in the short-term, players stand the most to lose.

Team owners, however, are not entirely in-step with one another. Micky Arison, owner of the Miami Heat, slipped up recently when responding to an embittered fan. Accused of being one of the greedy pigs,” i.e. owners, Arison responded on his Twitter account, saying You are barking at the wrong owner.” For this minor, vague reference to the labor dispute, David Stern slapped Arison with a $500,000 fine, maintaining what the New York Times calls the illusion of solidarity.”

While the two sides continue to butt heads, other parties who depend on the NBA for income probably stand to suffer. Ticket takers, vendors and arena staff will have no work. While few rely on these jobs for the entirety of their income, the absence of games will definitely destabilize temp workers’ financial condition. The Sacramento Kings’ Power Balance Pavilion, for example, employs 700 people (including 550 part-time workers).

Area businesses will also suffer. Drew Mahalic, CEO of the Oregon Sports Authority, commented on the effect that the lockout will have on Portland: “[The Trailblazers’] absence will, quite frankly, be devastating to the Portland regional community in that it impacts so many different businesses when they play.”

Steven McEachin, a restaurant owner in Miami, told the Miami Herald that each cancelled Heat game costs his business $15,000 in earnings: It’s been horrible. We should be pumping out hundreds of dishes tonight. We should have 12 to 15 servers. Tonight, we’ve got four. And that’s probably one too many.”

As NBA players and owners fight for their interests, thrown by the wayside are the interests of all the workers off the court who help the league function. This struggle is about more than millionaires and billionaires. It’s also about the collateral damage their impasse is causing.

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Patrick Glennon is a writer and musician living in Chicago. He received his B.A. in History from Skidmore College and currently works as Communications Manager for the Michael Forti for Cook County Court campaign and as the web intern at In These Times.
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