Commentary

NBA, David Stern and labor lessons

Updated: July 6, 2011, 5:07 PM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

Seventeen years ago in August, then-interim commissioner Bud Selig and his fractious band of owners took a Ruthian cut at the heart of the Major League Baseball Players Association first by forcing a players' strike that ended what was becoming an historic season and wiped out the World Series. Later, the owners took another prodigious swing, Reggie Jackson in style, by unilaterally imposing a salary cap on the players.

[+] EnlargeTony Gwynn
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesTony Gwynn could have hit .400 if the 1994 season had been played out. We'll never know.

What is past is prologue, and today, NBA commissioner David Stern is racing, like Philly-era Charles Barkley on a fast break, toward a showdown with the second great monument that professional athletes have achieved: the guaranteed contracts that ensure every dime promised to players be paid in full.

The results for baseball, we now know, were disastrous: In 1995, future Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor ruled that the owners were negotiating in bad faith with the players, wiped out both the owners' installation of replacement players and the salary cap and forced both sides to work out a deal.

In 1994, Tony Gwynn lost his bid at the first .400 batting average since Ted Williams in 1941, and no player again has come as close as his .394. Matt Williams lost a chance at Roger Maris' record of 61 home runs, a record that would fall six times in the next seven years. The Yankees, poised for their first playoff appearance in 13 years, would have to wait to commence a revived dynasty. And perhaps the biggest casualty was the first-place Montreal Expos, led by a group of stars who would go on to have success with other teams. The strike as the beginning of the end of baseball in Montreal.

With tottering franchises of his own, Stern has decided, as baseball did back in the 1990s, to launch a full-scale assault on a major labor victory of the past.

The cautionary aftermath produced both Selig and Donald Fehr's most significant achievement: Baseball hasn't suffered a work stoppage since. The players' union had fought for 30 years for its greatest victory -- unrestricted earning power via free agency -- and it didn't have to surrender that gain. Meanwhile, the owners, who claimed poverty without ever proving it, have made more money than ever through new media, a booming economy that produced an unprecedented era of stadium building and the Pyrrhic victory that was the steroids era. Internal consternation aside, labor peace grew the game.

Derek Fisher
Neilson Barnard/Getty ImagesExpect to see more players such as Derek Fisher in suits before you see them in uniform again.

For months, even as the NFL careened toward its current labor calamity, insiders on both the television and league sides predicted the NBA's acrimony would dwarf the NFL's. After all, the NFL is simply attempting to secure a better deal than the great one the league already has. Even if it loses concessions to the players and reopens its doors over the next few weeks as expected, the owners are still in command of the most popular sport in America with the most favorable economic terms to current and future owners. Unlike baseball, the NFL still has at least two growth markets (Los Angeles and Toronto). It has the most cost and freedom controls on players, the best television deal in sports and the least journalistic, public and government scrutiny over its ethics.

Depending on one's perspective, the NBA is trying to set the players back decades or rebalance a scale that has tilted too much toward players for too long. How much freedom a player should have (and when he should have it) to choose where he plays and whether owners should be allowed to cap salary costs without disclosing their financial records have been the twin issues at the core of labor relations in professional sports since the mid-1960s.

Stern not only is climbing the Mount Vesuvius of sports issues with an assault on guaranteed contracts but also wants to force a hard salary cap on players. This deadly combination for the players and their union exists only in the NFL. Baseball agreed to guarantee contracts for all players in the early 1980s, and, knowing it is a colossal non-starter with the union, never seriously attempted to repeal those benefits. Since 1994, baseball has not made the salary cap an issue worthy of a lockout -- the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox largesse notwithstanding -- instead imposing a luxury tax as a lukewarm attempt at cost control.

NBA union head Billy Hunter and Stern are doing their best to follow the contentious MLB act of Marvin Miller and Bowie Kuhn. The NBA is now on its third lockout in 16 years, two of which came during the Age of Jordan, when the economy was robust and the game was hottest to advertisers. This time around, a quick perusal of the top 20 NBA players by salary does make for interesting reading: Rashard Lewis is No. 2 at $22.1 million; Kobe Bryant earned $25.5 million this past season; the Denver Nuggets' entire payroll (post-Carmelo Anthony trade) is $28.6 million. But NBA owners have yet to prove that the league's financial structure and relationship to player salaries, not bad management by bad owners -- as well as the greed of expansion into markets that cannot sustain pro teams -- is responsible for the financial instability.

[+] EnlargeDon Fehr
AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Darryl DyckSoundly trounced in their last round of labor negotiations, the NHL players brought in Donald Fehr to represent them in the future.

The result is a familiar strategy: blame the players without proving hardship. It's effective because many sports fans do not believe that the players are the financial partner with the owners. But they are partners, which is why professional sports is such an odd, fascinating business and why the fan's common lament that he could not leave his cubicle and demand his boss' payroll information falls so empty.

Instead of learning from baseball, living with an imperfect system and refusing to chance losing the public, the NBA seems ready to try the nuclear option used by the the NHL of 2004-05. After three work stoppages in 13 years, commissioner Gary Bettman and hockey owners canceled an entire season and in return received prohibitive, favorable labor terms (a hard salary cap, huge reductions in payroll). The players, trying to rally five years later, hired the legendary Fehr in December. Their message: Yesterday's defeat would someday be avenged.

No games have been lost, and the NBA has months before the actual season will be affected, but Stern already has begun selling a league without its players. On NBA.com, the sanctioned public face of the league, the present and future no longer exist. Under the drop-down menu "players," where under normal circumstances the stars and rank-and-file of the league would be highlighted, there are only statistics and team logos in place of basketball's most recognizable faces.

For videos, NBA.com has gone retro: clips of Pete Maravich and Walt Frazier have replaced those of LeBron James and Kevin Durant. The NBA, in other words, has sent the same message to the public that it has sent to its locked-out employees: The players are no longer a part of the game.

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 followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/hbryant42 or reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com.

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