Three days of federal mediation did little more than make NBA commissioner David Stern sick with the flu, leave the owners and the players’ union more cantankerous and contentious than ever and force mediator George Cohen to flee back to Washington from all of the vitriol.
Talks for a new collective bargaining agreement deteriorated on Thursday, further jeopardizing the 2011-12 season as both sides left a New York hotel playing the blame game. The trust has been eroded and National Basketball Players Association president Derek Fisher ramped up the rhetoric by accusing league officials and owners of lying.
As San Antonio Spurs owner and labor relations committee chair Peter Holt said, it was “certainly a tough day. A very tough day.” And more tough days appear to be on the horizon, as no more meetings have been scheduled and conflicting emotions have made it difficult to negotiate.
“We have certain core beliefs that we have to address that we think are absolutely necessary to achieve before we play NBA basketball,” NBA Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver told reporters in New York. “And ultimately, we were unable to bridge the gap that separates the two parties. We understand the ramifications of where we are. We’re saddened on behalf of the game.”
The NBA has already lost the first two weeks of the regular season, and while Silver didn’t mention any further cancellations, more games will surely be lost after the latest impasse. League officials plan to meet on Friday with Stern, who previously stated that the league might have to cancel games through Christmas if a deal wasn’t reached this week.
Cohen managed to get both sides to sit in the same room for three days in a row for the first time since the lockout began July 1 (which is more disconcerting when the NFL was able to meet with its union for 16 consecutive days to reach an agreement last summer). Despite making some progress on minor details, they continue to haggle over the same, problematic issues that have kept them divided for several months — how to divide basketball-related revenues and the accompanying system.
Silver and Holt told reporters that the latest bargaining session collapsed because the owners offered a proposal for a 50-50 split of the revenues but the players were only willing to go down to 52.5 percent from its previous offer of 53 percent.
“They made it clear that, if our position was that we’re unwilling to move beyond 50 percent, there was nothing else to talk about,” Silver said.
The union quickly disputed that version of the story. Fisher began the union’s news conference by stating, “I want to make it clear that you guys were lied to earlier. It’s that simple . . . They’re interested in telling one-sided stories that are not true.”
Union executive director Billy Hunter countered that the players proposed a “band” that would allow the players to receive a minimum of 50 percent and a maximum of 53 percent, depending on the league’s annual profits, and that it would likely average more than 52 percent by their calculations. The players received 57 percent of basketball-related income in the previous agreement.
The owners were firm at 50-50. “Take it or leave it,” Hunter said Holt told them.
Hunter said Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert told the players to trust him that the salary cap issues would be settled if they dropped down to 50 percent. “I can’t trust your gut. I got to trust my own gut,” Hunter said he told Gilbert. “There’s no way in the world I’m going to trust your gut on whether or not you’re going to be open and amenable to making the changes in the system that we think are necessary and appropriate.”
Hunter maintained that the lockout was “pre-planned, pre-ordained, pre-destined” and mentioned Wizards owner Ted Leonsis, who was fined last September for his comments about the NBA salary cap structure.
“I’ve known from the get-go, at least two or three years ago, in fact it was the NBA owners’ plan to lock out, break the union, break the resolve of the players and impose upon the players and the union the system they wanted,” Hunter said. “You can look back, if you remember, it was Ted Leonsis who early on in the process said that Commissioner Stern had promised to the owners that they would have the NHL system and they would impose a super hard cap, reduce, compress salaries, limit contract lengths, etc. it’s clearly my position that that’s been the plan all along and that’s the way the thing played out.”
Hunter twisted Leonsis’s words some and put other words in his mouth, but Silver did admit that the NBA is envious of the current business models of the NFL and NHL, which have systems that Silver claims give all of their teams a chance to compete for championships. “We think the data is clear,” Silver said. “There’s a reason we believe why the NFL has been so successful from a competitive standpoint with a hard cap and a reason that the NHL has been so successful from a competitive standpoint with their flex cap-type system, which has a hard, absolute cap at the top of the band.”
Hunter clearly wasn’t buying what Silver was selling. “I think it’s all about putting money in their pockets. It’s nice to talk about teams being competitive,” he said.
Hunter said he felt Dallas owner Mark Cuban, Los Angeles Lakers owner Jerry Buss, Miami owner Mickey Arison and New York Knicks owner James Dolan would like to get a deal done, but “there are a group of small-market owners who are dug in, and they’re carrying the day.”
Talks had grown sour last week, when two sources with knowledge of the negotiations said Holt told the players, “You’re not hurting enough yet.” But another source said the tone of the meeting “was pretty bad in there” on Thursday.
After spending nearly 30 hours with owners and players, Cohen decided that he had enough — and that both sides probably needed a break. He and deputy director Scot Beckenbaugh determined that there was “no useful purpose would be served by requesting the parties to continue the mediation process at this time.”
Holt concurred. “We’ve kind of worn each other out,” Holt said. “Both sides hopefully won’t harden. Right now, it could be tougher than it has been in the past to get back together.”