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NFL lockout ends, but NBA's is just beginning

Published July 31, 2011 10:44 pm

Labor fight • Huge financial and philosophical divide could doom the season, analysts say.
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The NBA is divided and now it stands alone.

When the NFL's 4½-month lockout ended Monday, the NBA became the lone major professional sport whose game is burdened by a work stoppage.

The resolution of the NFL's labor stalemate should provide a template for the NBA: Owners and players traded proposals until an unavoidable deadline approached, then compromised at the last minute on a new collective-bargaining agreement (CBA) that is expected to strengthen the league while preventing the cancellation of games and lost revenue.

The NBA's path toward continued success is clear. But few believe that the league will follow it, and signs continue to point toward a debilitating extended lockout that could erase the entire 2011-12 season.

NBA commissioner David Stern and NBA Players Association (NBPA) executive director Billy Hunter have yet to gather for an official CBA discussion since owners locked out players July 1. A formal meeting is not scheduled, either, and one will not occur until momentum picks up. Meanwhile, the lockout's four-week anniversary tips off Friday.

"I don't think it is unexpected," said Gabe Feldman, Tulane law professor and director of the school's sports law program. "And I don't think we'll see much movement until both sides feel some pressure — either through legal action or because the regular season is approaching."

The NBA's regular season does not start until Nov. 1. But the league's first real deadline is mid-September. If sides have not made significant progress by then, training camp likely will be pushed back and preseason games could be canceled. Stern and Hunter are not expected to meet until early August at the earliest, while recent reports have pinned their first post-lockout convergence toward the middle or end of that month's calendar. This would leave owners and players about 30 days to save the preseason. Considering the enormous financial and philosophical divides that separate the sides, some sports labor analysts believe that the impending cancellation of regular-season games is already a given.

"Both sides are already anticipating that there is going to be part of the season lost," said Matthew Parlow, a Marquette University associate professor of law who is associated with the school's National Sports Law Institute.

He added: "You hear some people predicting that the owners might even go two years. I think that would be crazy; that would be insane. That might actually just kill basketball, or it would take a decade to rebuild."

First breaks

Significant breakage has already occurred. The NBA's Summer League was canceled, the release of the 2011-12 NBA schedule was widely panned, and the league announced Tuesday that it has postponed the annual rookie transition program.

But an agreement is nowhere near, and neither is a predictable outcome. NFL owners and players collectively bargained until March 11, when the NFL Players Association filed to decertify as a union. That move pushed the NFL's labor dispute into the court system, eventually leading Monday to a negotiated agreement that involved everything from mediation and an appeals process to an antitrust lawsuit and the National Labor Relations Board.

The legal power plays frustrated fans and confused even hardcore football devotees. But they were part of a heavily orchestrated movement that eventually resulted in the preservation of the 2011-12 NFL season and a new 10-year CBA. Nothing resembling synchronous harmony has yet been produced by NBA owners and players, and the topic of mediation has not been publicly addressed.

Owners have gone incognito since June 30, while players have done everything from sign multimillion-dollar contracts with European teams (Deron Williams), receive major financial compensation for playing an exhibition game in the Philippines (Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose) or continue to work out as though the 2011-12 campaign will start on time (the Jazz's Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors). Several key agents also reportedly disagree with NBPA executive director Hunter about which path the union should follow.

Different routes

NBPA decertification and an extended legal battle could be in the NBA's near future. But with the league claiming that 22 of 30 teams lost money last season and owners hungering for a slam dunk ­— sacrificing short-term gain for long-term success as they attempt to fix a system that is financially and competitively broken — analysts said that it will be difficult for NBA players to score in the courtroom.

"The legal arguments are actually probably stronger for the NBA [owners] in having the lockout than the NFL owners — the NBA's losing money," said Michael McCann, director of the Vermont Sports Law Institute and professor of law. "And also when the issue of harm to the players comes up by a lockout, the more these guys go to Europe, the more the league can say, 'Well, actually it's not hurting the players that much.' That would give the NBA a better legal argument than the NFL had, and the NFL won."

The NBA has two self-created paths to follow if it avoids the courtroom and returns to the negotiating table: a brief 1995 lockout that did not result in missed games and mirrored the NFL's recent work stoppage, or the black hole that was the 1998-99 NBA lockout, which produced an aborted 50-game season and from which the league spent years recovering.

Roger Abrams, Richardson professor of law at Northeastern University and a sports law expert, believes that the first move — a stalemate that will not end until one side gives in — already has been made.

"Someone, I think, has made a decision to let this hang where it is until after the first of the year," Abrams said.

He added: "Sorry for all the Jazz fans. Root for BYU and the [University of Utah]."

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Two sides of the story

Key differences between NBA owners and players:

Revenue

NBA owners want a 50-50 revenue split, improving their take from the previous collective-bargaining agreement that saw players receive 57 percent of basketball-related income. Players are willing to drop their percentage down to 54 percent.

Contracts

Owners either want a hard salary cap or a flexible cap that has more in common with the NFL's financial system than MLB's. Owners also want to reduce the length of guaranteed contracts and cut down on the amount of players making maximum money. Players oppose the proposed changes, arguing that a hard cap will benefit only star athletes while leaving lesser players to compete for scraps.

Losses

The NBA claims that 22 of 30 teams lost money last season and small markets cannot compete in the current economic system. Players believe that the league is overvaluing its losses and is unwilling to mirror the NFL's successful revenue-sharing program. Key dates

Sept. 15 — NBA training camp could be postponed and preseason games might be canceled if a new collective-bargaining agreement has not been reached

Sept. 28 — Date that training camp started for the 2010-11 Jazz

Oct. 7 — Date that the Jazz opened their 2010-11 preseason schedule

Nov. 1 — Jazz are scheduled to host Houston at EnergySolutions Arena to tip off the 2011-12 season No clear path

The NFL lockout ended Monday and reached its conclusion by following a predictable path. Owners and players spent the first two months of the work stoppage attempting to gain leverage in the court system, then found middle ground when commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith intensified talks as a deadline approached. In contrast, the NBA lockout lacks direction. Negotiations between commissioner David Stern and NBA Players Association executive director Billy Hunter have not resumed since the lockout started July 1, while the NBPA is still debating whether it will decertify as a union.