Commentary

Cordial CBA talks bound to get nasty

Owners, players oddly amiable as sides part ways and prepare for an NBA lockout

Originally Published: May 17, 2011
By Chris Sheridan | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- Well, it's going to be a strange lockout. It is already way off the weirdness charts. That much became immediately clear as the NBA's collective bargaining talks broke off Thursday afternoon.

No vitriol. No outward animosity. No doomsday talk. Just a very diplomatic turn down what could be a very bumpy road.

"It's been extremely cordial. It's almost like we were singing 'Kumbaya' at the end," union director Billy Hunter said after three hours of talks -- a portion of which were set aside for lunch -- ended with the owners deciding to impose a lockout beginning at 12:01 a.m. ET Friday. "I couldn't believe that. We were all shaking hands and saying 'We'll see you in a couple of weeks, have a good Fourth of July weekend.'"

If you are reading this and shaking your head, rest assured you have plenty of company.

It's been extremely cordial. It's almost like we were singing 'Kumbaya' at the end.

-- Players union director Billy Hunter

All the goodwill the NBA has spent years developing is about to disappear like LeBron James in the fourth quarter of a championship series.

All of the casual fans who had taken a decade off from watching basketball, only to come trickling back last season during a popularity surge that swelled like a post-retirement Charles Barkley, are at risk of being lost, too, in a chorus of "they're all a bunch of greedy [fill in the blank]."

As he piloted his jet into the unknown, NBA commissioner David Stern looked like the grandfather who tells you he is going to go on a cross-country drive that will not be a problem because he has made cross-country drives before, albeit at a younger age. You looked at him and said to yourself: That man has no business going on a cross-country drive at this juncture of his life when he can just as easily get from Point A to Point B on an airplane.

But Stern, 68, is a man who is dead set on driving his bus down that bumpy road, even if he is putting himself in danger of driving it off a cliff as he pushes the gas pedal harder and harder.

"There will be collateral damage as we go through the summer," Stern said.

Yeah, no kidding.

The weird thing is how Stern and the owners are going down this mad path so matter-of-factly, treating this fork in the road too much like a detour instead of the route to self-destruction it could easily become. Their lockout has become a self-fulfilling prophesy, and now the consequences begin.

"I'm not scared," Stern said. "I am resigned to the potential damage that it can cause to our league and all the people who earn a living from our league, and as we get deeper into it, these things have the capacity to take on a life of their own, and you don't ever predict what will happen."

He should be scared, because he is putting himself in danger of making a gargantuan mistake.

Stern said he reached the conclusion that Thursday's talks were not salvageable when the union presented a new proposal for a six-year deal that would raise the average player salary to $7 million in the sixth year of the deal.

Deputy commissioner Adam Silver said the players' proposal would provide for a guaranteed profit of $80 million for the owners (excluding interest costs on franchise purchase costs) in the final year. But $80 million for the 2016-17 season was simply not enough.

[+] EnlargeDavid Stern
Neilson Barnard/Getty ImagesDavid Stern said he isn't scared of the damage a lockout could cause. Is he making a mistake?

Back in 1998, when the owners last locked out the players, the buzz phrase for the owners was "cost certainty." They wanted to get a system in which they knew what their costs would be, and it took a lockout that lasted more than 200 days for the owners to get that.

In 2011, the owners are seeking "profit certainty." But a system that provides for that certainty in Year 6 has been deemed not good enough.

Strange, eh?

Not as strange as one of the lines Hunter delivered.

"In a way, I've been anticipating this lockout for the last 2-3 years, and it's here, and I'm sort of glad it happened," Hunter said. "Now that it's a lockout, let's get down to business."

People on both sides of the table said the vibe in the negotiating room has been better than it was in 1998, when Stern and Hunter were still strangers to each other, even with Stern dominating the dialogue, vociferously, in the two most recent sessions.

The problem, according to the union, is that the owners are overreaching on the financial side of the equation to such a degree that there is too wide of a gulf to find a bridge to a middle point.

"It's like taking a baby step or a giant step. We took a baby step," Hunter said of the players' latest proposal. "They didn't take any [step] at all. The discussions were very amiable. I remember when we negotiated the deal in '98, there was always a lot of acrimony, but it's very professional this time. They have a job to do, we have a job to do. We've been respectful throughout, they have certain views on some of the issues that differ from ours, and we haven't been able to find that happy medium, and I think that's the problem."

So without a happy medium, we've got ourselves a happy lockout -- at least for now.

If the gloves come off, they likely won't come off until sometime around Labor Day weekend, the true date for getting a deal done without compromising the integrity of a full 82-game season.

Until then, we'll have limbo. And it might even stay a diplomatic limbo -- at least for the folks sitting across from each other at the negotiating table.

But for everyone else, it'll be a limbo that will prompt people to choose sides.

Do you root for the billionaire owners who will be judged by many as nothing more than greedy jock-sniffers?

Do you root for the handsomely compensated athletes who will be judged by many as nothing more than greedy jocks?

Why they'd let things get to that point is beyond reasonable comprehension, but this is the slippery slope the owners have chosen.

Do you root that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) will step in and force the sides into a mediation process?

Or do you throw up your hands and say, "To hell with them all. I will root for neither. I am walking away."

That last choice might be the most popular as this dispute drags on, and that is the biggest danger of steering this potential train wreck down the wrong track.

The public will only grow increasingly frustrated and angry with both sides, and eventually they might just keep their heads turned away.

As Stern said, these disputes can take on a life of their own. And it is not a sedentary life. It is a dangerous life.

And if this thing drags into October or beyond, say goodbye to the short-lived new golden era of the NBA.

Why they'd let things get to that point is beyond reasonable comprehension, but this is the slippery slope the owners have chosen. So enjoy the weirdness, if that is possible, while it lasts. And if and when it turns ugly, remember that it need not have come to this.

On the afternoon when the sides could have taken steps toward making a deal, they instead shook hands, made nice and parted ways amicably, like fools.

And barring an abrupt U-turn, those fools are going to continue down the road to self-destruction well into the winter.

If it wasn't so weird, it would just be sad. Instead, it is a shame.