Reading The Lockout Tea Leaves

Darius Soriano —  September 14, 2011

Since the lockout began I’ve been optimistic that the owners and players would reach an agreement in a timely manner and that the NBA season would start on time. I had a variety of reasons for thinking this but the main one is that both sides understand the importance of building on the momentum of the last several seasons in order to maximize the league’s popularity. There’s simply too much at stake for both sides to shun an agreement for the prospect of their hardline ideology becoming the status quo.

Yesterday, my beliefs seemingly took a hit as lockout doom and gloom took hold after the players and owners had a bargaining session that went absolutely nowhere. Our friends at Silver Screen & Roll summed up the mood around the talks quite well. Basically, the players seem to be inching towards a compromise and the owners continue to dig in their heels and pull on that rope to gain further leverage like a high stakes tug of war match.

However, that talk of doom and gloom is just that: talk. When you dig a bit deeper, look at the nature of this last meeting, and start to read between the lines what we saw yesterday should have been somewhat expected. Chris Sheridan sums up this position well:

…I am not the least bit surprised that everyone is emerging from the meeting in New York spewing doom and gloom. That is what always happens when the owners’ and players’ full bargaining committees get together. It is a total dog-and-pony show, and anyone who expected the sides to emerge today with a sense of optimism was fooling themselves. This dispute will get settled when there are a lot fewer people in the room. David Stern and Billy Hunter can reach a suitable middle ground by meeting by themselves for a couple hours, which was what happened back in 1999 when that lockout was settled.

Ken Berger of CBS also dives into the rhetoric from yesterday and isn’t convinced progress has stalled. In fact, he sees steps in the right direction:

Though no written proposals were formally exchanged, hidden amid all the rhetoric and doomsday prognosticating was something extraordinary for how lost it became: the NBA and its union are on the verge of solving the biggest dispute between them, as in how much money each side gets. It was still happy hour when Stern strolled out of the NBA offices, so someone should have been raising a glass for a toast. Neither side would say how far the players moved economically, but a person with knowledge of the negotiations said they expressed a willingness to move lower than the 54.3 percent of basketball-related income they last proposed on June 30 as a starting point in a six-year deal. Stern disputed the players’ contention that the owners haven’t made an economic move since the day before the lockout was imposed. Nobody outside the room knows how many millions the two sides shaved off the gap, but it hardly matters since everyone seemed willing to concede that they’ve at least dipped their toes on common ground when it comes to dollars.

Getting a handle on what’s really happening will always be difficult. No one doing the actual reporting is in the room during the talks and those that are emerge with handy quotes in front of cameras and voice recorders meant to spin their side’s positions in order to gain public support and/or portray the other side as unreasonable/unwilling to bargain in good faith. Even anonymous sources have agendas (not unlike what we see around the trade deadline) and, while I wouldn’t call anyone dishonest, I certainly believe that quotes fed to reporters are meant to serve multiple purposes beyond informing the public.

So, while I’m more pessimistic today at this time than I was yesterday, I’ve not yet abandoned hope. There’s a deal to be made and both sides continue to work towards it, even if progress is slow and hard line rhetoric knocks us off its scent.

Darius Soriano

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