Stern, media put players in bad position

If NBA players committed financial suicide Monday afternoon by rejecting David Stern’s latest ultimatum and choosing a court battle, let’s objectively agree it was assisted suicide, with the media playing the role of Dr. Jack Kevorkian.

At least when NFL media succumbed to lockout hysteria, it did so without serving as out-of-the-closet mouthpieces for Roger Goodell and ownership. NFL media covered themselves with fig leaves of objective finger-pointing in both directions.

For the most part, that is not the case in our latest sports labor dispute. NBA players and their leaders have been vilified and ridiculed by the media. Monday, in the moments after Billy Hunter, Derek Fisher and a gaggle of players stood shoulder to shoulder and announced their intention to continue their battle with Stern, two of ESPN’s top basketball voices – Stephen A. Smith and Ric Bucher – re-opened the Worldwide Leader’s assault on the players union.

Bucher basically alleged the players didn’t take the deal because they were too emotional, too prideful and fighting against being bullied. Smith said he sided with Stern because NBA owners have more money than NBA players.

I like Bucher and Smith. But they are part of the problem.

The unfair, one-sided coverage – and it’s far more than just ESPN – of the NBA labor dispute has contributed to the players’ recalcitrance and Stern’s arrogance. The coverage has made it nearly impossible for the two sides to strike a deal. Stern and ownership are under virtually no public pressure to get a deal done because the media, from start to finish of this dispute, have put all the burden on the players.

There was considerable pressure on ownership and the union to get a deal done in the NFL. There is no equality of pressure in this dispute. There is a near-unanimous voice shouting at the players to take whatever deal Stern places on the table because it will only get worse in the future.

I don’t blame the players for bowing their backs. They might think differently if they believed the public had been given an opportunity to consider their position. This is America. We’re all supposed to get our day in court. We’re all supposed to have a chance to have our voices heard.

When your voice is dismissed or drowned out, the right thing to do is shout a little louder. The players are standing up. They’re taking considerable risk to stand for what they believe. I’m proud of them. I support them. They’re labor. I don’t understand how so many working journalists – even those who selfishly just want to return to covering games – can stand against the players, can enthusiastically side with corporate billionaires in a labor dispute.

For the past 30 years, we’ve wondered why athletes no longer take tough political or social stances, we’ve wondered why so many of them choose the Michael Jordan see-hear-speak-no-evil approach.

I know this labor battle is a self-serving mission, but at least these young athletes are standing up and taking a risk for something. This is a start.

As best I can tell, they capitulated on the financial issue and gave the owners a 7-percent ($1.1 billion) giveback on basketball-related income. They took the financial hit in order to gain some control over the system that governs them. That seems more than fair. But in this era of corporate greed that’s not nearly enough.

So after Stern’s media mouthpieces were done blasting the players, the commissioner took to his business partners’ airwaves (ESPN) and blasted the players again. He called Hunter irresponsible, described the union’s move to decertify a “charade” and generally dumped all over union leadership.

Throughout this process, Stern has huffed and puffed about take-it-or-leave-it proposals/ultimatums. He played the role of bully. And maybe in the coming days he will back up that tough talk with even tougher action. Maybe Stern will cancel the season and make good on his promise to give the players an even worse deal.

If so, his legacy as commissioner should go up in flames along with the season. Stern never struck the right tone with players. He treated the players like they’re the media members who live in fear of Stern’s wrath. He treated the players with little regard for respect. Unlike the media, the players do have a rare skill that has significant value globally. They’re not going to respond well to being bullied. As commissioner, Stern’s goal should’ve been about getting a deal done and making sure his workers were happy going back to work. Stern should’ve demanded that his media mouthpieces fully and fairly aired the players‘ position so the players felt like they had been heard and respected.

Stern’s bully tactics backfired. Throughout this lockout, we’ve heard repeatedly that NBA owners are prepared to do what NHL owners did to the hockey union. There’s an important difference. The NHL isn’t dependent on American-born players. Americans are fighters. We’re not afraid of suffering if we believe in the cause. Forcing a bad deal on NBA players could have far worse ramifications for the game than Stern, Michael Jordan and a few other hardline owners losing face in the negotiations.

Stern and the hardline owners might want to be careful about what they wish for. They might live to regret getting it. The same way having most of the media stuffed in their pockets backfired.