'10 power shifts presage '11 labor fights

12/31/2010 - NFL NHL NBA MLB + more

The year is over, and there were many moments on the calendar that made 2010 a great sports year: Saints-Colts, USA-Canada Olympic hockey, USA Bobsled, Duke-Butler, Celtics-Lakers, the World Cup, the French Open, Wimbledon, the rain-marred Rafael Nadal-Novak Djokovic U.S. Open final, and of course, the San Francisco Giants.

Individually, it was the year of Mark McGwire's return from the cold; Tiger Woods' denouement; Michael Vick's on-field revival and appropriately frustrating and uneven quest for redemption off of it; and LeBron James' next chapter. Brett Favre, like virtually all the rest, went out not with the triumph of his greatest season ever, as he should have retired in January, but with an inevitable, sad (and in his case sordid) that is the price of the athlete's golden talent.

Yet the year might be more significant for its percolating boardroom subtexts than its on-field buzzer-beaters. The NBA and NFL face work stoppages in 2011. As it moves to expand the playoffs, Major League Baseball might entrench growing, inevitable divisions between the princes and the paupers. The NHL players' association made a statement that it is ready to move up a weight class by hiring Donald Fehr as its new executive director.

The undercurrent leading into 2011 is clear: If you care about sports, you might want to learn about economic and labor issues as much as you study the mysteries of the Cover 2 shell.

Historically, during labor strife, when leagues and players demonstrate that the game on the field isn't the most important game being played, sports fans in their darkest hours resisted education in favor of anger that the final score on the field was unimportant. Millionaires fighting with billionaires over pension funding, television revenue, salary caps and the like got in the way of the fun and games. Fans weren't the only ones, for countless reporters, committed to following the bouncing ball and not the economic intricacies of labor relations, often balked the loudest.

Power shifted in 2010, with serious portents for the coming year. No single episode was more famous, or exhausted, than LeBron James leaving Cleveland. The noise has stopped, and James is settling into South Beach with victory after victory, but Dwyane Wade and James struck one of the greatest -- and for teams, most chilling -- blows for athlete freedom by manipulating free agency to provide the athlete even further control over where he plays.

Conversely, while James, Wade and Chris Bosh were constructing the blueprint for athletes to conspire, the NBA revealed its true fears regarding both a lack of financial solvency and the fear of a work stoppage. The former is occurring now; the league took over financial control of the flagging New Orleans Hornets last month, relearning, too late, that basketball failed in New Orleans once before and would do so again. Like when Major League Baseball assumed control of the Montreal Expos, or the NHL took over the Phoenix Coyotes, the NBA now owns one of its franchises.

At the same time the league is carrying the Hornets, it is, MLB-like, threatening contraction. At the turn of the new century, baseball commissioner Bud Selig suggested and began to explore the idea of contracting more than a half-dozen teams, ostensibly on account of that vague but popular term "competitive balance." The problem for Selig was that two potential victims, the Oakland A's and Minnesota Twins, were perennial playoff contenders at the time, exposing Selig's rationale to be less than scientific and more a threat to local governments to publicly finance new stadiums -- or else.

As it turned out, contraction talk disappeared, and since 2002, new ballparks have opened in Minnesota; Philadelphia;, Cincinnati; Pittsburgh; Milwaukee; Washington, D.C.; and San Diego -- not to mention in stable, muscular places such as St. Louis and (twice) in New York.

Thus, the stage is now set in the NBA for a labor showdown on the hardwood (albeit not as a political lever for new arenas): The players are comfortable. They run the game. Their contracts, like those of baseball players, are 100 percent guaranteed. Coaches, lacking the authority of their positions and paychecks, have -- unless their last name is Jackson, Rivers or Popovich -- little ability to motivate or control players who know they are far more valuable than a disposable coach. The league will now begin to ask for things to balance the scales, beginning with wiping out guaranteed contracts and -- if the NBA really does eliminate teams -- jobs.

For everyone convinced that football's great hypocrisy -- the acceptance of a performance-enhancing drug culture that is intolerable in baseball, track or cycling -- would lead to its ultimate downfall, 2010 was the year of the concussion, the one issue on which the sport could not escape from itself.

As in basketball, a work stoppage looms over football in 2011. In the past, NFL players have never put up a classic goal-line labor relations stand, but the league's hypocrisy in fining players for vicious hits and purporting it cares about player safety while demanding an 18-game schedule might galvanize player resistance this time around. The dream of the toughest wing of the NFLPA is a bloc of players that finally stands together for itself and future generations, winning concessions from the NFL that other sports' owners and front offices granted years ago.

The reality is that with a 3-year average career window and generations of stars (Lawrence Taylor, Joe Montana) who folded when the ranks needed them most, NFL players have never held together. The league has counted on the players' lack of solidarity, and this is why it hasn't budged from its reckless demand for an 18-game schedule.

Normally, paperwork shuffled between lawyers, proposals, counterproposals and negotiations cause the average fan's eyes to glaze before they turn red with rage, as the fan thinks about the money involved. While the Pirates and Royals continue to have no chance to win (by their own mismanagement as well as a system stacked against them), the average big league baseball salary topped $3 million for the first time. Such figures make labor issues incomprehensible to the fan who is worried about mortgage payments, college payments, and underfunded and underperforming public school systems.

As 2011 unfolds, these ghosts of 2010 will reappear, and every sports fan and the leagues and players they support will be challenged. The fans will be challenged to understand that these business issues are comprehensible not in comparison to the issues of the average taxpayer but within the framework of the pro sports industry. The leagues must realize that outside of the irrational business of fans caring about their teams, there is no inherent value in a sports franchise. Before walking a picket line, athletes must consider that their outsized paychecks are partly a byproduct of their talent and largely thanks to a public that has decided watching a guy dunk a basketball is worth paying $200 a month in cable/satellite bills, $65 per game ticket, $50 for parking and $10 for a watery beer.

The real game isn't players versus owners but rather for each to make sure the public still believes in the price of the ticket.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com.