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Shaun Powell

David Boies
A November move into the courts by David Boies and the players may be too late in the game.
Patrick McDermott/NBAE/Getty Images

Labor negotiations: From blame game to lame game

Posted Nov 23 2011 1:21PM's Labor Central

In these stalled labor negotiations, where the arms on both sides are crossed instead of extended, we have transitioned from the blame game -- a shared honor -- to the lame game: the current strategy adopted by both sides.

After taking several weeks of screwy twists and turns, negotiations have suddenly flat-lined. The owners and players are not speaking. This standoff, hard and firm, might be followed by one taken by fans when and if the game returns.

The league is sitting still and saying nothing, a posture that would make Robert Parish jealous. The union's decision to wait until November to take the NBA to court is like showing up to training camp in March and expecting to win a championship against the '86 Celtics.

At this delicate stage of the calendar, where union grinch and NBA commissioner David Stern is poised to steal Christmas, where the 2011-12 season is in danger of ending before it ever started, there should be more talks, not fewer, whether it's through back-channels or however. Not talking is a weird approach, and not exactly the best way to save the season, which is what both sides should be striving to do. Instead, things have given way to a will of egos, where stubbornness and an I'll-show-you attitude appear to have overtaken the collective bargaining spirit, if there ever was one.

If the goal from the get-go was to hold tight for the best deal, regardless of the consequences, then mission accomplished. If nothing else, you must admire the guts of the owners and players, who are willing to lose millions and potentially harm the game for the sake of ... well, we're not quite sure. But whatever it is, it's working. We haven't arrived at any Drop Dead dates yet, and this lockout still has nothing on the 1998 work stoppage. That didn't end until February.

But there are few concessionary signs or gestures, which make you suspect jeopardy is lurking around the corner with a sledgehammer. Let's examine the current postures of the respective parties:

Owners -- Fearful of leaking profits over the next several years -- and that's if they're lucky -- the owners clearly have an iron fist and they're clenching it. The same group that was guilty of giving $7 million a season to an assortment of backup centers, behavior-challenged stars and fantastic flops is determined to put protections in place to save them from these bad managerial impulses.

Hey, if you can get away with it, then try. And that's what the owners are doing, drawing a line in their luxury suite, saying enough is enough. At least until the next free agency period and somebody overpays the next 7-footer with oily hands.

Here's the deal, though: As much as owners always come across as ruthless and bloodthirsty, their claims of losing money must be taken more seriously now. Why else would they threaten to blow up an entire season over a new labor deal? Therefore, from a selfish standpoint and perhaps a business one, the owners are doing right by themselves. In a shaky economy that doesn't appear to be healing quickly, the owners are out to protect their business interests and perhaps, by extension, make sure the league stays healthy enough for the next decade.

Players -- Why are they still brandishing a sharpened toothpick in a knife fight? Why haven't they done the smart move -- not necessarily the ego-stroking move -- and caved already? These are the hard questions that leadership must answer to the membership, which likely would've approved the latest proposal if it ever went to vote.

It is now fair to wonder if they've been steered down the right path by executive director Billy Hunter and his legal pit bull, Jeff Kessler. And it's all because of this late and terribly desperate decision to go to court with an antitrust suit. The legal route is something the union should've taken last summer, not now, not with Stern poised to press the red button if this drags well into December. Which it just might, because the court goes by its own schedule, not the 82-game schedule.

Isn't this kind of late in the game? Like trying-to-sink-a-winning-shot-after-everybody's-gone-home late?

Anyway, this maneuver appears a legal long shot, both in terms of the plaintiffs winning and striking any fear into the owners. You don't bring a Hall of Fame negotiator like David Boies off the bench when you're down 20 at the two-minute warning. You should've had him in the starting lineup.

At this point, what difference will he or the legal process make? These negotiations were never about fairness to the owners or the players. They're about leverage, period. The owners have it; the players don't. And the owners fully intend to use it to get a deal in their favor. Maybe next decade the players will carry the hammer. But we're not there, and they don't.

The right course of action by the players should've been to take this deal and fight another day, when the deck's stacked in their favor. They've done nothing except lose money, with the real threat of losing even more in the coming weeks or months.

Bottom line: These negotiations took a turn for the worse, perhaps fatally, when the union chose to dissolve rather than counter the last proposal and get back to the table. And when the owners essentially said that they were through negotiating.

So this is where we are, awaiting a bunch of legal mumbo-jumbo that's guaranteed to please nobody except the attorneys getting richer by the hour. We're into the holiday season now with no deal in sight.

That eerie silence hanging over the league? It's nothing to be thankful for.

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

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