Phoney War programmed in from the start

Phoney War programmed in from the start


Phoney War programmed in from the start

In the good news for all involved, the NBA lockout dropped totally off everyone’s radar in August, so the participants got to take a summer vacation, after all!

No negotiations.

No decertifications.

No developments with the NLRB.

This relieved David Stern, Billy Hunter, et al, of the obligation to spend endless hours pretending to negotiate, with no intention of giving an inch, knowing The Other Side had no intention of giving an inch and its presence was merely play-acting, as, of course, was the presence of Our Side.

Of course, NBA fans are wondering, “Are these people ever going to do anything?”

The answer is, yes!

Just not for a while.

If you want to know the significance of the above, it’s… zip.

This Phoney War, as they called the eight-month period between the German, French and English declarations of war in 1939 and the start of combat in 1940, was programmed in from the start.

With the NBA demanding an unprecedented giveback (a 57-43 split of revenue vs. the old 43-57, a hard cap, retroactively revised contracts), there was never a chance of accomplishing anything in the weeks of meetings before the July 1 lockout.

Nor was there any chance that, with both sides pretending to bend over backwards, that they would do anything after July 1 but knock off for weeks, or months.

In collective bargaining, nothing gets done without a real deadline and July 1 wasn’t it, starting what what some NBA execs used to call “soft lockouts” with no salary or revenue being lost.

The real deadlines are Oct. 1 for starting the season on time… or Nov. 1, for starting a month late… or Dec. 1, for avoiding a prolonged war… or early January, the presumed drop-dead date when they would be deciding whether or not to cancel the 2011-12 season.

With four weeks or so needed to open on time Nov. 1 (pushed back from last season’s Oct. 26, some coincidence, huh?), they might be able to go as late as Oct. 5-7 and start on time.

That means they have to be negotiating in earnest by Sept. 15… giving them another week or two or three to kick back and order another of those drinks in the Hurricane Glass with the fruit and the little parasol.

With all the conjecture about who has won what and lost what to this point, the answer is no one has won or lost anything.

The dynamics remain what they were. The players are in no worse shape. The owners are in no better shape. They all knew they’d have to wait this out before anything would happen.

Of course, at this point of the NFL lockout, the football players had turned the dynamic around and were beating the owners over the head with it.

NFL owners swaggered in fat and happy, sure they were about to get fatter and happier, but were shocked to see the NFLPA decertify, bring an anti-trust suit and succeed in getting the lockout lifted, if only briefly.

Why the NFL owners were shocked, other than their overweening sense of entitlement, is a mystery.

The NFLPA had decertified before. The federal district court in St. Paul, Minnesota, which had bludgeoned the NFL in ruling for decades, had jurisdiction of the case, as stipulated in the league’s bargaining agreement.

While getting the lockout reinstated on appeal, the NFL owners were now looking at an ongoing anti-trust suit with Tom Brady, Peyton Manning et al., as plaintiffs, which, they realized could blow up in their faces, and for what?

After that, the owners were only out to save face. Their biggest demand, an 18-game season, was set aside as something they could bring up again (and the reconstituted union could reject again). Not only didn’t they lose any games, they made a deal in time to save almost the entire exhibition season.

Not that that’s going to happen in the NBA.

NBA players have a problem the NFL players didn’t: NBA owners are nowhere as prosperous as NFL owners.

You don’t have to take the NBA’s claims of $350 million annual losses literally. (You could, for example, subtract off $125 million or so in interest on loans, a cost of acquisition, and, say $75 million in expenses, for salaries the owners are paying themselves.)

Nevertheless, it’s true that most NBA owners operate close to the blade. In good times, things are fine. In bad times, they lose money, or a lot of money unless they’re the Lakers, Knicks, Bulls, Rockets or Clippers.

Stern and his owners won’t just throw up their hands at the first sign of trouble, as Roger Goodell and his titans of industry did.

Giving the NBA the summer off, Hunter didn’t want to decertify first and bargain later. In 1998 when the lockout ran to the drop-dead date in January, 1999, the union didn’t decertify at all.

Hunter’s preference was to proceed through the NLRB, charging the NBA with failing to negotiating in good faith.

No one to sit back on defense, Stern has since filed suit in federal court in New York City, presumably a venue he knows well, charging the union with failing to negotiate in good faith.

Stern also made repeated mention of the need to get a deal as the two sides met continually in May and June. If nothing else, the NBA looked like it was trying to make a deal… so there goes the union’s NLRB case?

So, now the score is… 0-0.

The game hasn’t started. The union can yet decertify. No one has lost $1 yet.

Personally, I’m always struck by the progress they have made, although neither side is in any mood to characterize anything as positive.

The NBA has moved passed retro-fitting contracts, a non-starter from the get-go. Stern has pledged publicly to “at least triple” revenue sharing, the other piece of the puzzle. The union has offered to drop from its present 57 percent of revenue to 54.8 percent.

At 52 percent and quadrupled revenue sharing, you’d be talking about a shift of $400 million from the players and the rich teams to the poor teams.

(For the record, I ran that math past NBA people, who noted I was wrong. This means I was wrong… or they don’t want to tie revenue sharing to the deal, or they want more from the players and less from the rich owners.)

If this seems endless, it hasn’t started, with crunch time still months off.

If there’s no deal by Oct. 7 and the openers are off, you’ll now this is serious… as everyone believes it is.

If there’s no deal by Oct. 15, that means they’ve shot the first two weeks of the season and it’s really, really serious…. as everyone believes it is.

No deal by Nov. 1 means they’ve cancelled a month’s worth of games and they’re on the brink of total war.

No deal by Dec. 1 means total war, with each side sure the other has gone mad and both determined to go to the drop-dead date in early January.

Personally, I think they’ll get a deal by Nov. 1-7 but few people on either side do.

Lots of management people think the players will fold but I don’t. Management people said the same thing in 1998-99 when Hunter was new and the union was divided between star players, notably the David Falk clients in leadership positions in the union (Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo, Juwan Howard), with most of of the membership anxious to make a deal but holding together until the bitter end.

Now Hunter is a veteran and the players are united behind his Man of the People president, Derek Fisher.

Of course, if they get to the drop-dead date, anything can happen, as in 1999 when Stern was set to pull the plug but was prevailed upon to hold a last session with Hunter as the players overthrew the forces of Falk.

In any case, be grateful for these final weeks of silence. It will be loud enough and angry enough once it starts.

Follow Mark Heisler on Twitter at @MarkHeisler

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