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Owners, players to meet together with mediator Tuesday

Oct 18, 2011, 8:47 AM EDT

David Stern AP

Tuesday is the latest key day in a long line of key days that has led us down a path where two weeks of the NBA season have been lost and more are threatened.

Tuesday NBA owners and players will sit down with the respected George Cohen — director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service — who will try to help bridge the remaining gap and get the two sides to make a deal that could save the majority of the NBA season. He cannot force the two sides to agree a deal, but sometimes a neutral third party can get the two sides to listen, to see things in a different light. He can help build a consensus.

But he can only help them reach that consensus if both sides really want to reach a deal.

By all accounts the two sides are not that far apart — just a handful of percentage points (six on formal offers, three on informal) on how to split basketball related income (although each percentage point does represent about $40 million, so it’s a lot of money). There also remains a divide on the system issues, specifically how stiff a luxury tax there should be and length of contracts. There is a lot of work yet to do.

The damage and risks are mounting for both sides. The longer the lockout drags on, the more money lost, eating away at whatever dollars they think they are gaining through taking a hardline stand in negotiations. The longer this drags out the more damage the two sides do with fans.

Contrary to what the owners and players think, there will be no winners in this negotiation. Not with games missed. Sure, the owners will come out with a lot more money in their pockets than they did before this lockout started (something true even if they took the players offer of 47 percent of BRI). But the damage of perception has already started and is only going to get worse. Casual fans see millionaires and billionaires fighting over how to divide up $4 billion of the fans’ money during the worst recession in America in generations and they are disgusted. As they should be. While the negotiations have their own internal logic, from the outside the entire process comes off a stupid.

Union president Derek Fisher seemed to acknowledge that, as quoted at the Land O’ Lakers blog at ESPNLosAngeles.com.

“But relatively speaking, we know where the NBA, where this business, the game of basketball, those opportunities that have been afforded to us that other people can’t necessarily relate to, so we get that part of it. So that’s not why we’re not trying in any way, really, to look for sympathy or empathy from our fans in that regard. We don’t need them or want them to feel sorry for us because we’ll make less money because we’ve given up more percentage. That’s not what this is about.”

The bigger issue for the owners and players is not a lack of empathy for their cause, it’s that feeling of disgust fans have with the process turning to apathy. That will happen more and more as this process drags out. Fans will move on and be slow to return. Maybe Cohen can get that through the thick skulls on both sides.

We’ll see. Because the “at least they are still talking” optimism has worn out. Even with a mediator in the room.

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