If I were an NBA player, I’d be mighty confused right now. I wouldn’t be confused about why the entire 2011–12 season is now in jeopardy. I wouldn’t be confused about rejecting the ultimatums and “last, final offers” of NBA Commissioner David Stern. Instead, I’d be confused as hell by the media’s reaction to my union’s collective and unanimous stand.
The 21st century athlete—particularly the twenty-first-century African-American athlete—gets regularly blasted for being a weak, watered-down shadow of their more principled forebears and only caring about the money. Entire books (see Shaun Powell’s Souled Out) have been written examining their ego-driven materialism and absence of social conscience. Yet here are today’s players rejecting a deal from David Stern that would have guaranteed them their entire current contracts if they were only willing to sell out the ballers of the future. All Kobe Bryant, who was due the biggest payday of his career, would have had to do was raise his hand in dissent. All NBPA President, Derek Fisher would have had to do is blink. All Lebron/Wade/Bosh, the supposedly selfish Miami Heat Big 3, would have had to do was holler. Stern’s offer would have been accepted and they all would have been paid and paid well.
But after the players had given back $300 million in revenues, the owners wanted more. They wanted the freedom to limit the future compensation for the sport’s “middle class” role players and to be able to send anyone on their roster to the National Basketball Developmental League for up to five years while dropping their salaries to $75,000 a year. The players, without dissent, said no.
In this day and age, such action should be seen as admirable. Supposedly selfish athletes are sacrificing their own game-checks for the players of the future.
Instead, the media bile runneth over. JA Adande at ESPN wrung his hands that the players just couldn’t be more greedy. Seriously. He wrote, “The biggest problem with the NBA is that the principal players in this lockout saga weren’t selfish enough…. If the key figures had been thinking of themselves and their legacies, we’d be looking ahead to the Celtics playing the Heat this week…. I still can’t believe that after the players made the huge sacrifice of $300 million a year by dropping down to a 50 percent share of revenue, they would balk at the thought of a few million dollars for a few players.”
Well believe it. Players actually stood together against their economic self-interest. Say it was about ego. Say it was about pride. Say it was about fairness. But you can’t say it was about the money. As NBA veteran, Roger Mason, Jr. tweeted, “Fans talk of NBA players being greedy. But what about the guys willing to sacrifice their big pay day for what’s fair and just for others?”
Absent a coherent narrative, a flailing punditocracy has now resorted to crudely class-baiting the players for being out of touch with “economic reality.” Michael Wilbon, perhaps the most read—and most paid—sports columnist in America, wrote, “I’m tired of the debate, tired of what seems like whining over billions of dollars at a time when so many Americans are searching frantically for a second job just to pay the rent…. They keep telling us how going from approximately
$5.4 million (on average) to $5 million is draconian…when my idea of ‘not fair’ is when a 58-year-old single mom with three children has her teacher’s aide salary slashed. Tell her about what’s not fair.”
First, I would like to meet the “58-year-old single mom with three children [who has had] her teacher’s aide salary slashed” with whom Michael Wilbon is in regular dialogue. Then, I’d like the entire varied punditocracy to just admit the truth. The players stood up to a group of the most powerful men in the country, and these same men, through broadcast partnerships with networks like ESPN or even direct employment, pay the six- and seven-figure salaries of Wilbon and his cohorts.
As Wilbon’s longtime PTI partner, Tony Kornheiser said when asked why he wouldn’t critique Washington football owner Dan Snyder’s ugly lawsuit against the Washington City Paper, “There are two companies that provide me with the economic opportunity that I’ve had in recent years, which has been very beneficial to me. And in the words of my colleague Bomani Jones, I’m not gonna mess around with where the money comes from, OK?” (Kornheiser’s daily radio show is on a network Snyder owns. I also believe Bomani Jones deserves better than to be lumped in with this idiocy.)
The players ARE “messing around with where the money comes from” and the response by sports talkers has been robotic in rejection as they bleat, “Does Not Compute!”
No one in these negotiations has been more clear-headed in intent and less decipherable to the press during the lockout than eleven-year vet and NBPA executive board member Etan Thomas. I believe that the union—both players and officials—on the whole has done a very poor job getting the message out. But Thomas has been an exception, regularly posting columns that have had the same message: “No matter what you hear, we are united and we will not sacrifice the future for the present.”
Last week, Thomas who had been working in New York City to get a deal done, took a time out to visit Zuccotti Park and the Occupy Wall Street encampment.
Afterward he wrote very thoughtfully, “A few friends of mine told me that although they appreciated my support for the Occupy Wall Street movement, I would never be considered as part of the 99 percent (they made the distinction that I was more like the 5 percent). My question is, if an Occupy the NBA were to happen, would the players be lumped in with the 1 percent because of million-dollar salaries? While the issues raised by the Wall Street occupiers differ from the issues of this lockout, aren’t there obvious parallels in power imbalance?
“Who is in the same position of power as the 1 percent ? Who wants a bailout for their own mismanagement decisions? Who is more closely aligned with the corporate interests from which the Wall Street occupiers are looking to reclaim the country?”
Thomas, rather predictably, was slammed for daring to even raise the issue that players, despite their personal wealth, might have more in common with the 99 percent, no matter their bank accounts.
Ian Thomsen of Sports Illustrated wrote,”I could not believe how out of touch [Thomas] was to view the mission of his union as having anything at all in common with the movement to Occupy Wall Street…[with] people who are unable to feed their families, who have lost their homes to foreclosure and who believe they have been neglected by employers and government?”
I spoke to Thomas about this, and he sounded the same bewildered note as Mason. “If you don’t stand up for yourself, the media is all over you. ‘You’re no Bill Russell.’ But then you do, and it’s ‘How dare you?’ But they can say what they want. We know what we’re fighting for.”
Maybe they’re fighting for a reason so basic, we’ve missed it. Maybe it’s because they overwhelmingly come from the ranks of the working poor, have career lengths of six years and have been facing off against the ranks of true generational, aristocratic wealth in all it’s arrogance, personified by the snide, oozing contemptuousness of David Stern. Maybe they’re just tired of being treated as less than men by the people who write their checks.
Maybe they just hate to lose. NBA players: welcome to the 99 percent.
[Dave Zirin is the author of “The John Carlos Story” (Haymarket) and just made the new documentary “Not Just a Game.” Receive his column every week by emailing [email protected]. Contact him at [email protected].]