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Ball Don't Lie

A reminder that the NBA lockout takes place in a historical context

Eric Freeman
Ball Don't Lie

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There's a tendency in lockout coverage to look at the issues on the table as if they can be solved by rational argument. If one side is asking for 50 percent of basketball-related income and another wants 52.5 percent, then surely they can't be too far apart. The problem with that reasoning, though, is that labor issues are largely defined by each side's will power. As in any negotiation, the owners may claim that 50 percent is their best offer but change their approach at the next collective bargaining session. The lockout is a gambit as much as a debate of principles.

Part of that battle of wills is based on the historical context of the lockout. From the 1964 All-Star game to "The Decision," there's a long history of players attempting to take control of their destinies and gain a measure of control over their employment. The lockout is just the latest such incident.

Matt Moore understands this context and wrote about it in a very long, very great piece for ProBasketballTalk. Read the whole thing if you have the time. Here's an especially important passage:

The shortening of players' contracts, the extreme luxury tax penalties, the Bird rights reforms, the pursuit of the elimination of the sign-and-trade, where do you think these things come from on the owners' part? They're trying to stabilize their economic model, that's certain. But to do so, they know they have to regain power. They can't sit by and watch a league that became driven by superstars starting with Magic and Bird, the only way the league survived, much less flourished, be controlled by those superstars. It's fine to market those stars, to demand they smile for promos, do all the appearances, act and dress the way the owners need them to in order to make the league more popular. But those same players can't control what happens in the league. That has to be the owners' prerogative, in their minds. [...]

This has been going on since before 1964. From All-Star boycotts to antitrust suits to threats and Garnett all the way to "The Decision" and the looming force of Dwight Howard threatening to once again render the league's landscape entirely reformed in the summer of 2012, this is about money, it's about economics, it's about labor law, it's certainly about ego (past: Dan Gilbert, and future: the Orlando Magic). But it's also about the power of the man who owns the floor, the ball, the court, the logo (but not the arena!) vs. the man who controls the hand that dribbles, passes, defends, and scores.

What Matt captures well here, more than anything else, is the sense that the lockout is a power issue before it's an economic one. Whichever side "wins" the lockout won't just have helped themselves economically. They will also have ended the lockout in a way that shows they were the strongest party. That's why the players can't really afford to concede even more BRI points, or why the league may try to figure out a way to play close to 82 games even though they've technically canceled a month of the season already. It's a battle of wills. It's not enough for the owners to get what they want -- they need to do it in a way that proves they have the upper hand.

It's hard to forgive fans for thinking that's a childish approach, especially if it hurts the league's popularity in the short term. But, logical or not, this history informs every negotiation between the union and the league. The more we acknowledge it, the better we'll understand what's at stake in these negotiations. It's about much more than economics.

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