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Shaun Powell

There's no good guy or bad guy in labor dilemma

Posted Oct 20 2011 8:51AM

Like a game of shirts vs. skins, sides are being chosen and folks are deciding who's good and who's evil in a labor struggle that continues. Such is the hyper-opinionated sports world in which we live, one that thrives in hues of black and white, when the truth usually lies in gray.

For example, we've heard the following:

David Stern ... evil dictator!

David Stern ... faithful caretaker of the NBA!

NBA owners ... greedy and heartless bosses!

NBA owners ... compassionate businessmen!

NBA players ... overpaid babies!

NBA players ... vulnerable and unappreciated icons!

And on and on. The labeling by the public and media and even the spin-masters within the parties involved has become a sport unto itself, painting the key figures in the negotiation as ruthless oppressors or innocent victims. It's all part of the game, with owners and players trying to curry favor with an impatient fan base. Meanwhile, an unimpressed public is jumping to a quick conclusion about the characters of the people responsible for delaying the start of the season.

Of course, the extreme depictions of the owners and players are far from the actual truth. Nobody here is a saint or sinner. It's just business, nothing personal, two sides trying to cut their best deal to protect their interests. It's the kind of thing that happens in everyday life, although not in the public, and rarely with parties that are extremely well off financially compared to the average Joe.

For example, take the commissioner. Stern is indeed a tough taskmaster -- just ask anyone who works for him -- but he's not lacking in compassion, he doesn't want to punish the players and he's not unfair. He does drive a hard bargain, and that comes from years as an attorney and also making complex TV deals. But the NBA is better off because Stern is a bulldog in negotiations. A weak commissioner doesn't stay on the job as long as Stern has, and his bosses, all of whom are successful businessmen, wouldn't have it any other way.

Besides, Stern is merely carrying out the wishes of the owners, and also acting in the best interests of the future of basketball. He and the owners are trying to improve the league, not just a handful of glamour franchises (Lakers, Heat, etc.) that sell out regularly and drive up the ratings and compete for championships. The owners want a league that is more competitively balanced. Whether true competitive balance is pie-in-the-sky thinking (and it is), they believe a move in that direction, however mild, is much better than the system already in place.

Does that make them greedy and selfish? Or merely doing whatever they can to insure the health of the league here in these uncertain financial times, with a few franchises (Kings, Hornets) in dire straits?

Then there's the players. Because of their visibility, they often take the full force of the public backlash. The sight of 22 year olds making more in one season than most people will see in their lifetimes has always been a tough sell on the public. People see the wealth, the fame and the fun and automatically believe the players have an incredible life. And they do, or most, anyway.

Except: For the average player, money doesn't stretch a lifetime, even for those who are responsible and careful with it. The average career is roughly six or seven years and a vast majority don't make eight figures a season. And once their skills fade, the hunt is on to find a replacement. True, the average NBA salary is the highest in sports, but roster size is limited and nowhere near that of football or baseball.

NBA players have a limited shelf life. They must make as much as possible, just as anyone would if he was blessed with height, quickness and hops. The best comparison is with Hollywood and the music industry. Will Smith (welcome to the NBA, by the way) is never taken to task by the public for commanding upwards of $20 million a picture. Nor is Jay-Z for raking in $50 million a year. But most actors aren't Smith, and most musicians aren't Jay-Z. And all must maximize their earnings while they can in the fickle business of entertainment, where the revolving door never stops.

The owners and players have a difference in philosophy, that's all. But soon enough, they'll settle, the games will return and the public's rooting interest will shift to the team of their choice. That's how it always ends.

Until then, nobody's being evil or an angel here. This is just a struggle for leverage and muscle. Our rooting interest should be confined to a solution and a conclusion. Which means there's really only one side to choose from.

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

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.


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