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Shaun Powell

With antsy public, NBA, union must play PR game carefully

Posted Sep 14 2011 10:02AM

As if the ongoing NBA labor negotiations aren't risky enough, there's another contest involving a third party that's just as sensitive, one that the owners and players can't afford to lose.

It's the battle to stay in the good graces of the public, which is understandably weary right now.

Labor fights in sports are always met with skepticism and scorn from the public. Normal, everyday folks trying to meet their mortgages carry a healthy distaste for billionaires and millionaires throwing cream pies at each other. No league that's ever been involved in labor strife has been spared from consumer backlash -- not baseball, not even football, the current national pastime. The average fan can't relate to financial greed, at least not when it comes to an industry based on fun and games. The backroom business aspect of sports is always lost on the working stiffs, especially now in this historic era of soaring unemployment.

In that sense, the union and owners are on the same side, hoping to protect their best interest: the game itself. And it's not going to be easy. It wasn't easy even when the NBA offered Michael Jordan in his prime.

The good news for the NBA is, right now, the league is doing about as well as can be expected in the public relations battle. There hasn't been a massive groundswell of hate hurled at the league, but that's mainly because it's still the offseason. This is the down period where the NBA is out of sight and out of mind. People are locked into football, their heads still months away from wondering whether the Miami Heat will continue to be roughed up by the crowds on the road.

Besides, no games have been missed, no season interrupted, nothing harmed except a free agency period that wasn't going to be too suspenseful anyway. Most importantly, nobody on either side has said or done anything insensitive enough to cause an uproar.

That said, the NBA can continue to walk the public tightrope as long as a few rules of "labor etiquette" are followed:

Keep negotiating. The owners and players did themselves lots of favors the last few weeks, and then again Tuesday, by showing an honest effort to ensure an on-time start to the season. Whether these meetings are being held in earnest, or are simply a desperate 10th-hour reaction to the approach of October, remains to be seen. But it's been better than the alternative: allowing weeks to come and go without any action. It goes over well with the public, which is left with the impression that the NBA is serious about saving the season, and the players and owners are willing to compromise for the sake of the sport.

However: If these talks go nowhere, and the calendar flips to mid-October, effectively erasing the preseason, then the public will get antsy. Once November arrives, and if there's no basketball or any sign of labor progress, then the howling will begin. And what's worse than being howled at? How about the sound of silence, which means, nobody cares?

Which leads to the next rule:

Keep a muzzle on the owners. Jordan was fined $100,000 for making some rather honest, and some might say sensible, comments about the state of basketball last month. So right away, the Bobcats, one of the league's money-losers, are starting the season in the red. But the gag rule is an important one, even if seems nitpicky at times. Aside from dodging a potential legal issue, the league can't afford a public relations mishap involving an owner shooting off at the mouth. David Stern would rather Joe Owner refrain from discussing any labor hardships, even if such owner (such as Jordan) might indeed have hardships as it relates to the modern-day realities of the NBA. Again, fans don't want to hear the pain of a team worth hundreds of millions. Those complaints will surely get the eye-rolling treatment.

And another thing:

Tell the players not to brag about their bling. This goes back to the last big labor fight, when Patrick Ewing uttered the money quote: "We make a lot of money but we spend a lot, too." Well, yeah. We know. But the public doesn't want that rubbed in our faces by the spending habits of the rich and famous. And so: If a player has four mortgage payments to meet, and insurance to pay on his fleet of German two-seaters, and the massive bar tab for him and his friends, and if Fifi the family dog needs a $100 a day grooming ... well, maybe the player should keep that to himself.

Speaking of which:

Comments via social media must be kept to a minimum. There was no Facebook or Twitter during the last labor fight. But the communications game has changed. For the most part, a good many players are responsible with their tweets. Others, however, need to stay away from their computers. It's probably best to tweet about something safe and harmless, Like, the weather. Or a charity event. That's it. Any tweet that can be misconstrued by the public as greed or showing off should wait until there's a settlement.

So that's it. Those are the rules, designed to keep public backlash to a minimum. However, nothing works better than a signed labor contract.

Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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