October 05, 2011
Veteran big man Etan Thomas(notes) is the rare NBA player who may be better known for his exploits off the court than on it. In addition to occupying the end of many teams' benches, Thomas has written and performed poetry, become a political activist, and served as a vice president of the players' union. He has many interests -- not quite a renaissance man, but not your typical professional athlete either.
In other words, he has a reputation as a thoughtful man. So, when he penned a piece for ESPN.com written from the point of view of the NBA owners during the lockout, I approached it with some interest. Here's a sample:
The fans will always side with us no matter what the facts are. They don't see us as greedy; they see the players as greedy. They don't see us as being unreasonable; they see the players as being unreasonable. Their anger will turn directly toward the players once they no longer have basketball in their living rooms.
We know fans don't want to see their favorite teams broken up because of a strict hard cap or an incredibly harsh luxury tax, which is the same as a hard cap. But it isn't about what the fans want; we plan to impose our will on the players, and the fans will have no choice but to accept the outcome.
We haven't budged drastically from our original proposal because, quite frankly, we don't feel we have to. We're just going to sit back and wait for the players to self-destruct while we stick to our position. [...]
We also know that if teams controlled their own spending, hired the right people to evaluate talent and made better decisions, they wouldn't be operating in the red. But that isn't how we are going to present it to the public. We will divert the attention away from the real crux of the problem.
These passages are indicative of the quite lengthy piece: It presents the owners as condescending, arrogant, and generally disdainful of anyone who dares question their right to make money. (There's also a bizarre reference to the romantic comedy "The Break-Up," presumably because it's Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley's favorite movie.) It's a reasonably accurate portrait of the apparent owner mindset, but also one that seems counterproductive to the task at hand.
I'm no fan of the owners' approach to the lockout -- it's mean-spirited at best (and dishonest at worst) to make claims of financial ruin without opening every franchise's books. However, Thomas is not just a commentator on the lockout: He's a key member of the negotiating team. Given his role, painting the owners in such a poor light goes well beyond spin control and veers towards recklessness. As a negotiator, Thomas must keep things courteous and respectful at all times. Things would be different if the players' union were taking an especially hardline stance during these talks, but all indications show that it is focused on working out a deal. How exactly does Thomas' column help it reach that goal?
It's necessary for a union leader to boost morale and remind members that their cause is a noble one. But that's best done by arguing for the righteousness of their own point of view, not turning the perspective of the opposition into something they're likely to construe as a barren field of straw men. The lockout is a labor fight, not a debate of principles judged on the merits. The players need to win the battle by convincing the owners to agree to their demands, not by insulting them in public. Why would Thomas feel the need to alienate them when they've already shown the ability to be remarkably immature in the face of perceived slights and discord? Is a bigger gap between players and owners a positive outcome at this stage?