As you read this sentence, Utah Jazz fans are on the verge of losing the entire 2011-12 National Basketball Association season. A labor dispute between owners and players has officially wiped away the season’s first six weeks. And then, on Nov. 14, disgusted by the owner’s most recent proposal, the players announced they were disbanding their union, a move likely to lead to a protracted court battle.
The lockout is, like nearly all things, about money. The owners are demanding that NBA players give back hundreds of millions of dollars each year, among other concessions. Teams—especially those in smaller cities like Salt Lake City—are in jeopardy, they claim, and only huge givebacks will save them. They also maintain that under the current system, teams like the Utah Jazz are doomed to mediocrity while their wealthy cousins in New York City and Los Angeles thrive.
It’s a tantalizing notion. If we can just suffer through a few canceled games, we can fix the sport, put it back on firm financial footing and make it so that every year, teams like the Jazz or the Milwaukee Bucks or the Indiana Pacers will have just as much of a chance to win an NBA title as the Los Angeles Lakers or Miami Heat.
But here’s the problem: It’s probably not true. If you study the facts about professional basketball finances and success, you wonder whether the NBA lockout has much to do with parity or fairness, or more with owners pocketing more money.
First of all, it’s worth pointing out that the players and owners aren’t arguing over which team gets how much money, but instead simply how to divide the total cash pie. The owners have claimed deep financial losses—independent analysts agree that the recession and other factors have put many teams in the red, if not nearly as much as the owners claim.
The Jazz appears to be a team on pretty solid financial footing. An October front-page story in The Salt Lake Tribune crowed about the Miller family’s business success, calling the Jazz “one strong branch on an ever-growing, multi-billion-dollar tree.”
Despite that, reports suggest Jazz CEO Greg Miller is one of the “hawks” leading the charge of NBA owners claiming their businesses are in trouble—and thus it’s worth canceling games and maybe even a season to force players to give back a big chunk of their pay. One of their main arguments is that the sport, as it is constructed, is not fair—that teams from smaller cities need help to compete.
But just glance at the list of the biggest NBA cities and standings in recent years, and you’ll quickly realize there is no correlation. The most successful team of the past 15 years? Unquestionably the San Antonio Spurs, who have won four titles—in the fourth-smallest city in the league. Which two Western teams are most stocked with young talent and primed to compete for years? The Oklahoma City Thunder and Memphis Grizzlies, in two of the league’s three smallest cities. Meanwhile, two of the biggest-city teams—the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Clippers—have each made the playoffs just once in the past seven years.
Despite the shakiness of many of the owners’ claims about losses or fairness, players have shown a strong willingness to compromise. Most notably, the players have already agreed to take 52 percent of total revenues, down from 57 percent last year. That represents players giving back $200 million in salary a year. Players were even apparently willing to agree to an even 50-50 split, as long as owners compromised on other issues. They refused, leaving the players to feel they had little choice but to try their luck in court.
But you certainly wouldn’t know how one-sided negotiations have been so far if you subject yourself to the blather that passes for sports journalism in Salt Lake City. Our columnists, reporters and talk-show chatterers lazily blast the players and owners, calling both greedy, conveniently forgetting that one side has already conceded much, while the other has barely budged.
And then more troubling, ugly things are written. A lowlight came in October when Deseret News columnist Doug Robinson tore into New York Knicks center Amar’e Stoudemire for suggesting the players could start their own league. He called the players “really stupid,” said they “don’t know anything except basketball,” compared Amar’e to Bubba in Forrest Gump and referenced to his “posse” and his “homies.”
And thus we get a sad look into a dark window revealing what many pundits think about professional athletes: They should be grateful to make any money at all, even if the average NBA career is under four years and many athletes retire hobbled, their playing days ended by injuries.
It’s not easy to make much of a moral case for the plight of players or owners—not many of the 99 percent here. It’s ultimately a dispute between millionaires and billionaires, as many have noted. Fans like me ultimately just want it all to end so that we in Salt Lake City can begin to watch our young quartet of Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter and Alec Burks mature and thrive. Across the league, the NBA is stocked with great, young players who play hard and don’t get in trouble, from Dwight Howard to Blake Griffin to Derrick Rose to Kevin Durant.
We yearn for an end to the bickering and for the stars to play, but let’s not forget who has been willing to compromise so far—and who has barely given an inch in their hustle for hundreds of millions of dollars.