The first rule of political combat is to define your opponent before they define you. The NBA Players Association (NBAPA) has failed miserably at this task. Make no mistake about it: these labor negotiations are as much a political and PR campaign as they are a labor dispute, and the NBAPA is losing the message war badly. The movie studios have more sophisticated PR campaigns to earn Oscar nominations than the NBAPA has had for this labor dispute.
On the public relations side, once Kenyon Martin becomes one of your key spokesmen, as he did via Twitter, the players might as well let the owners write the agreement themselves.
On the negotiating front, the owners’ unreasonable opening offer has boxed the NBAPA into negotiating against themselves. I don’t blame the NBAPA leadership for that, but they don’t seem to have any strategy to push back against the owners and try to make this lockout as painful for the owners as it is for the players.
In normal labor disputes, workers gain the upper hand through one of two ways: through legal avenues such as the courts and the National Labor Relations Board, or by applying pressure, either economic or social, i.e., strikes/work slow-downs, boycotts and damage to the ownerships reputation. Once the NBAPA made the decision not to pursue the decertification route, they effectively foreclosed the legal option (there are other lawsuits ongoing, but those could take more than a year to reach resolution). The owners don’t seem to mind missing the season, thus limiting the power of an economic strategy. That leaves the battle for public opinion and going after the owner’s public image.
The league’s PR machine never sleeps — just ask a basketball blogger who has written anything mildly uncomplimentary of Stern or the NBA. By not developing a sophisticated, professional operation to match, the NBAPA has let down its membership.
David Stern has long since proven that he’s the kind of cut-throat lawyer who only responds to strength. In the current climate of widespread disdain for institutional wealth, the NBAPA could have quickly put the NBA on the defensive. Instead, the NBAPA allowed Stern to work on sowing discord among players and agents with a wide range of interests and levels of financial security. Those simmering rivals did not need much encouragement to snipe at each other anonymously.
The NBAPA went into this fight with several clear-cut PR advantages that it has thus far squandered. A newly aggressive strategy needs to capitalize on the following:
• Popular Spokespeople: In every major media market in the country, the NBAPA has well-liked players, who, if properly trained, would serve as great surrogates for the players’ message.
• David Stern: The owners are under a gag order from the NBA. In many cities, like Washington, the owners are well-respected, civic-minded leaders who have been sidelined instead of serving as credible witnesses for ownership. That leaves the unsympathetic and not particularly dynamic Stern as the only voice for the owners.
• Deep Pockets: While not as well financed as the owners, there’s no reason the NBAPA couldn’t raise $15-20 million from its 40-50 highest-paid players with a season or more of salary on the line. That budget buys a strong grassroots campaign, especially among the NBA’s social media-savvy fan-base, along with more broadly targeted paid media.
• Building Coalitions: Rather than letting this become a battle of billionaires vs. millionaires, a fight both sides lose, the NBAPA should define the issue as billionaires vs. stadium workers, fans and small businesses. Union leadership has known that this labor fight was coming for years and while they should have built those partnerships earlier, it’s not too late to engage potential allies.
• Going Negative: Assuming Karl Rove has a heart, it would flutter at the thought of the NBA owners’ opposition research files. Every nasty divorce, DWI, unpaid loan, sexual harassment claim and tax lien would be fodder for the press who are always looking to demagogue the rich. The NBAPA has infinite opportunities to push back on these unsavory characters through third parties and other vehicles. Most NBA owners have other business interests outside of their teams. If their reputations start to take a hit via well-placed negative news articles, I’m not sure how much of a stomach they would have for an extended fight. This would normally be the break-in-case-of-emergency option (you don’t want to demonize your opponents, especially if you have to work with them in the near future) but judging by the fact that Stern and the owners are willing to sacrifice the season, it may be time to go nuclear. Stern’s veiled threat to the players last year that he “knew where their bodies are buried” should alleviate any apprehension the players have about going negative.
Coming into this labor dispute the NBAPA made a major strategic error in that it had no strategy. Hastily called meetings with staged photo ops, internal discord, random tweets and occasional charity games reveal a disorganized coalition. This has allowed the owners to set the agenda for the negotiations and public debate. David Stern and the owners therefore feel no pressure to come to the table and they know that as the players miss more paychecks, they will be more likely to cave. That’s no way to run a labor dispute. It’s time for the NBAPA to raise its game.