David Stern Digs in as Labor Issues Loom
Even if NBA commissioner David Stern is choosing to ignore it.
His league is days away from what he's hyping as its most exciting season yet, with the love-'em-or-hate-'em Miami Heat spiking ticket sales and new intrigue while old-guard attractions like Lakers-Celtics redux are still spinning the turnstiles. The salary cap that so many estimated would take a serious hit and reflect the owners' tough times instead grew, followed by a free agency period in which the funny money doled out did little to support the league's argument that times were historically hard.
But as Stern seemed to make clear in a teleconference with reporters Friday, none of that will stop him from continuing down a path that can only lead to a lockout.
That proposed hard cap that anchors the NHL blueprint from which they're working? Alive and well. The salary cutbacks in the neighborhood of one-third that we told you about in July? Stern went public with those plans on Thursday. The prevalent notion among league insiders that Stern & Co. were cooling on these concepts that, as one source involved in the process told FanHouse, would guarantee one full season "at minimum" lost? Not holding up at the moment.
Still, in a 40-minute session in which most of the talk was labor-related, Stern said he's not about to let the looming weather ruin his outlook on the 2010-11 campaign.
"I'm allowed to be optimistic and not consider it a cloud because I've probably been in a dozen collective bargaining negotiations -- the last 10 of which involved some of the same actors currently at this table," he explained. "So we know we're going to get an agreement done, and we think that the enthusiasm of the season and the prospective growth that it will ultimately represent will enable us to sit down with the players and negotiate in good faith."
The question is never if, however, but when. And as Stern himself acknowledged, the search for real solutions has never been achieved through public discourse.
There was plenty of that just minutes before Stern's tip-off talk began, when the NBA Player's Association released a statement from executive director Billy Hunter lamenting the NBA's position and making it abundantly clear how far apart the two sides remain.
"The position expressed by the NBA today is regretful, since in February 2010, the players unequivocally rejected the owners' proposal which called for a hard cap, a 40 percent rollback in player salaries, unlimited expense deductions and the elimination of guaranteed contracts," the statement read. "The players and the union would prefer to work towards attaining a fair deal that addresses concerns raised by both sides and improves the game. But, if the owners maintain their position it will inevitably result in a lockout and the cancellation of part or all of the 2011-2012 season. The players and union will prepare accordingly."
Stern not only shrugged at the strong words -- at one point saying of the union and league's posturing that it was "classic negotiating rhetoric -- probably on both sides" -- but questioned the statement's veracity.
"I don't believe that Billy wrote that, because he wouldn't threaten me with a lockout," Stern said. "All I can say is that that's what negotiations are for, and I'm looking forward to our next negotiating session."
The next round of meetings between the two sides is expected to take place some time before mid-November. Stern, perhaps returning to his rhetoric form or maybe in earnest, indicated that the topic of contraction will be discussed at that time. The mere decision to discuss the topic is, as pointed out by Alan Hahn of Newsday, straight out of the playbook of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.
It serves two purposes: potentially scaring players who don't want the league to employ less players (and thus pushing them toward accepting a hard cap), and helping strengthen the support for said cap from owners of small market teams who don't want to be eliminated.
"I have spent 27 years in this job working very hard not only to maintain all of our teams but to, along the way, add a few," Stern said. "But I think (contraction) is a subject that will be on the table with the players."
He did, however, add that "we're not spending a lot of time on it."
Stern reiterated that the owners' position is rooted in the belief that the system simply isn't viable.
"One of the things we've found out ourselves as we work with our teams -- to keep the high level of sales and customer service at first-class arenas and all of the amenities of continuing installation and even in the prices of keeping player's secure and traveling them around the world by charter -- is that it has become much more expensive to do all the same things that we have always done," Stern said. "And No. 2 -- the world has changed.
"We're in the worst ... recession (within) the lifetime of anyone who is on this phone call, and it sobers people as to what additional investments or funding shortfalls they want to make to support their assets. I'd say the combination of those two (factors) has caused us to say, 'OK, we need a reset that makes this viable.' ... It's not, in the long-term, a sustainable business model that we're happy to be supporting."
That cloud overhead? It's going to be there for a while.
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