We’re conditioned to view the NBA in terms of the players, but we need to look at the labor dispute from a much wider perspective.
The most eventful NBA playoffs in years didn’t exactly end on a high note. Sure, the dutiful Mavericks hung around and collected a title, but the real Finals story was America learning all over again how to revile LeBron James and the Heat. The NBA Draft was a weak one, diminished even further by the looming chasm of labor strife. Professional basketball in this country might be headed for a long, long, hiatus. Already, we know there will be no Summer League grace notes to tide over the die-hards; barring a miracle, free agency will be a moot point until relations between owners and players are again normalized (or, more accurately, resolved through mediation and the intervention of several law-making bodies).
From the usual fan’s perch, the NBA will soon cease to exist, replaced by labor strife and legal wrangling. If the minutiae of contracts and caps have wormed their way into day-to-day sports discourse, this summer will push that trend right through the ceiling: There will, in a sense, be plenty of NBA, at least by the standard slowly established over the last decade-plus of increasingly high-stakes, and corporatized, basketball. But there will be no games, no signings that alter teams’ destinies, and mostly just a lot of acrimonious debate over the contractual rights of individual players and the Players Association as a profit-reaping whole. We may not be able to look away, but it’s likely we may hate ourselves—or resent the players, the owners, or the nebulous “sport”—more than ever for it.
We come to sports for entertainment, civic identity, escapism, and a host of other needs that our daily lives leave unfulfilled. I suppose that resenting multi-millionaires who fail to put up the requisite stats is part of that, but labor trouble falls outside of that love/hate dynamic. We’re used to balancing the tension between individuals and team success, wishing players well while wanting the best for the team. Scratch at the surface a little, though, and this off-season’s battle lines become painfully clear. Players and teams, or workers and employers, both inspire fondness and loyalty. The problem comes when we see athletes as wastrels, clogging up this delicate exchange of energies and priorities—professional, personal, and otherwise. But it’s the players, visible and easier to judge, who are both easier to love and easier to hate. The franchise, with its front office, owners, stakeholders, and impenetrable long-term plans, remains shielded.
That’s what makes this off-season so poisonous. All we know how to do, really, is pay attention to players. Even trades, unless they’re the most transparently financial of moves, are immediately viewed in terms of what players can do for their new teams. That’s the nature of post-trade spin, one of the most perfidious corners of all sports disinformation. NBA news will mount, and yet we’re conditioned to see this stuff in terms of players. Maybe it has to do with race; it could be that classic conservative tactic of convincing the relatively poor that they have a damn thing in common with the very wealthy. The players are the objects, the targets. Discussions of their plans and goals are what hang in the news, and the other side of the struggle stays at arm’s length. We are used to looking at players; from there, it’s takes little more than a slip to turn them into the objects of blame and scorn.
There’s no reason, though, that this visibility can’t lead us in the opposite direction. Clichés about individuals versus teams are not, in fact, contrasts between upstarts and the company. That equivocation, which verges on deadly, misses the point here: athletes always have more in common with each other than they do with their organizations, and the “team” in “team player” is a sub-community of peers, under the leadership of a coach who has earned their respect. In other words, the franchise is always external, watching, hoping, waiting, and leaping at any opportunity to take credit for athletes’ success. Obviously, bad contracts and decisions can sink a team, or insert an undesirable element into the equation. Yet the wholesome community here isn’t the largely invisible mega-business, but the levelheaded players in the middle between spoiled, useless max deals and owners who plead poverty in order to grind the Players Association into the dirt.
Stern knows this well; cleaving the ranks of the players in two is how he brought an end to the 1999 labor stoppage. In fact, it’s the small-market teams that should be splitting off from the big city cabal, but that’s another story altogether. The message here is simple: Because we’re conditioned to pay attention to players, and contrast them with some nebulously “sound” team interest, it’s easy to look at this summer of players—denying us basketball—on parade and let the frustration mount. But let us not punish them for their visibility, or fall into thinking that LeBron James is the enemy of Derek Fisher. The point of labor is that all are protected equally, and that what we see as noble in some athletes is something that comes from player solidarity, not the sensible influence of jerk-off owners. That syllogism could make you resent the summer labor news cycle. Instead, look at the players, and ask yourself: How the hell can the owners be both the shepherds, and source of, all “good” player behavior, and yet not be out there pleading their case.
Where there’s not smoke, there’s not fire.