David Stern has done a lot of talking this week, a lot of truth-twisting and agenda-pushing veiled in somber tones and manufactured emotion.
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After months of negotiation, the NBA lockout is no longer about saving the season. With two weeks of regular-season games already canceled and more coming soon, this is now an all-out media war, a battle to assign blame, a race to see who gets the full force of the public’s anger as they dig in for a labor fight that might get even longer and uglier before a resolution comes.
And so far, the players are getting crushed.
It’s not fair, and it’s not even reasonable. But it’s the truth, and Stern knows it. The only question now is how badly he wants to run up the score.
“I don’t really think we’re getting our message out there, to be honest with you,” Knicks superstar Carmelo Anthony said Friday during a promotional appearance in Times Square. “The owners are definitely doing a great job.”
Even before this week, the NBA was winning the public relations battle, which isn’t a surprise given the long history of fans turning on players during labor disputes. Fans either don’t care or don’t understand how the owners and players split the money, but they can tell you exactly who’s been overpaid on their favorite team. Nobody’s going to feel sorry for a union whose average salary is somewhere around $5.1 million.
This is the owners’ inherent advantage in every labor battle, in every sport, and it didn’t help last week when the players flatly rejected a 50-50 basketball-related revenue split that could have saved the entire regular season. Never mind that the players, who were at 57 percent in the last CBA, had already shifted $1 billion back to the owners over the life of their proposal by coming down to 53 percent. For the vast majority of NBA fans, who can barely afford ticket prices as it is, splitting anything 50-50 probably sounds pretty good.
And if it wasn’t hard enough for NBA players to crack that mentality, to break through to the public about why they can’t concede anything more, they have been unfocused and undisciplined, waiting for sympathy that will never come.
At least the owners know who’s doing their bidding for them, who speaks for them, even as a group with varying agendas and internal disagreements about the way the NBA should look moving forward. You don’t see Mavericks owner Mark Cuban going off the reservation. You don’t hear Oklahoma City’s Clay Bennett going on national radio shows and risk straying off-message. Stern is the public face, voice and conscience of this fight.
The players? They’re all over the map, and even as Stern sets out to belittle them, they seem to be willing accomplices in their own demise.
If it’s not Kenyon Martin tweeting that “haters” should “catch full-blown AIDS and die” — he later claimed that his account was hacked before shutting it down — it’s JaVale McGee making an early exit from a Players Association meeting in Los Angeles on Friday and telling reporters that some players “are ready to fold.”
The union just can’t get out of its own way.
One day, Kobe Bryant seems on the verge of going overseas. The next, Amar’e Stoudemire is talking about forming a new league. Nobody can really get their story straight.
Even Anthony seemed confused about what he was supposed to say, which is shocking since this wasn’t an impromptu interview but rather a planned event for one of his sponsors.
The most telling moment came when Anthony was asked about the proposed “Carmelo Rule,” which would essentially block what the Knicks did with Anthony, trading for him during the final year of his contract and then going over the salary cap to re-sign him using the Larry Bird exception. With the proposed Carmelo rule, a Bird exception wouldn’t have been available unless the Knicks traded for him prior to July 1 of the last year of his contract.
Is it a huge issue? No, but it’s a concept the union could conceivably be against when the final details of the CBA get hammered out.
“I’m just glad I can be part of something,” Anthony said. “When I’m dead and gone, the Melo rule will still be here. I’m just excited they can name a rule after me.”
Not quite the response the NBPA was looking for, I’m sure.
Also noteworthy was Anthony’s answer to why it’s been so difficult to get the players’ message out.
“They have David Stern, the owners who can go out there and talk,” he said. “We only have Derek Fisher. At the end of the day, we have one person going against the whole NBA office.”
Forgetting anyone, Melo? What does it say about the leadership and trust players have in Billy Hunter when one of the NBA’s biggest superstars doesn’t even mention him as a leading voice in their effort? Isn’t he the guy — not Fisher — who is supposed to be going up against Stern in the court of public opinion?
This is going all kinds of wrong for the players, and Stern just keeps hammering them with a disciplined, focused media blitz. Maybe he’ll overplay his hand, maybe he’ll go too far. Nobody likes a bloodbath. But for now, the players are hopelessly behind and as disorganized as ever as the lockout enters an even more critical stage. When’s enough going to be enough? How much longer will they fight a fight they can’t win?