CBA Talk: A Function of Power and Not Truth

“All things are subject to interpretation. Whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.” – Friedrich Nietzche

Sam Amick conducted a Q&A Sports with National Basketball Players Association vice president Maurice Evans for Sports Illustrated. It is a well-articulated position of how Evans sees the current labor impasse between the owners and the players. Evans believes every word he says there, and it comes through.

So it doesn’t matter so much that every word he says is wholly self-serving and every bit as misleading as the words he criticizes NBA Commissioner David Stern for saying on a recent “BS Report” podcast with Bill Simmons. Evans will not be called out for what he said. It’s unimportant that his interview serves the exact same purpose with the exact same motives — to make his case — that Stern’s appearance did. Why? Because he actually believes the mislead, and he’s speaking to an audience that (mostly) has accepted the mislead.

Even if he is caught in some factual misstep, it will be dismissed as a technicality. He was, after all, being honest in his statements. When he said them, he considered them to be true. He can’t be expected to fully understand and articulate all of that financial mumbo jumbo. He’s a real person speaking real stuff, not some accountant.

The problem with nuanced situations is, the more you understand them, the less firm and more oddly specific you become in your statements. And that combination of being fuzzy, yet oddly specific undermines the credibility you have with a broader audience. We live in a world that has come to equate simplicity with truth and complexity with obfuscation.

It’s why the players have such a huge advantage from a public relations perspective over the owners, and it’s also indicative that the players are much stronger in relation to the owners than is generally believed. Evans may be subject to being considered wrong, but he cannot be accused of lying. It’s even questionable, I guess, as to how guilty he is of “misleading” people, since he’s been somewhat misled himself.

David Stern, on the other hand, is always assumed to know something more than he’s saying. Nothing he ever says or does is taken at face value. Of course, Stern is at least partially responsible for this perception. He has cultivated an image of being a shrewd, sharp operator. He has pissed off the fan base of virtually every NBA team at one time or another.

Some respect David Stern. Many fear David Stern.

Nobody trusts David Stern.

In the third clip of a recent episode of HoopSpeak Live (an online, NBA discussion show produced by the TrueHoop Network blog HoopSpeak), co-hosts Beckley Mason and, mostly, Ethan Sherwood Strauss sort of go after co-host Zach Harper for apparently defending Stern’s performance on Simmons’ podcast. Beckley opens it by asking “What did you think of Stern’s game plan … of coming off so exasperated and as a victim?”

That “exasperation” that came through in the podcast was probably the most honest expression of how Stern feels that we have heard publicly. He misdirects some on the financial issue of depreciation and parses his words on the owners offer when he talks about the 8% pay cut, but he is making his case. But because we hold Stern to a different standard, and because Stern is saying things we don’t want to hear, all of his points are largely either diminished or ignored entirely by most of those interested in how this impasse will be solved.

Truthiness

Stern characterizing the owners’ latest offer as an “8% [pay] cut … [to] $2 Billion, then hold them there while we try to grow out of the where we find ourselves” is no more misleading and no less accurate than, say, the following statement from Evans.

The major, if not the most, misleading thing was him saying that if Billy [Hunter, NBPA executive director] just tells the players that all I’m asking for is eight percent salary cuts that there would be resolution. That eight percent is actually 40 percent over 10 years, and the actual total is $7.6 billion that he’s asking for. Even if you’re saying, ‘We already make $2.17 billion [annually] in salaries.’ That hasn’t grown. That’s why we got our entire escrow back and then some.

Unsurprisingly, Evans’ statement of position is being taken at face value, while Stern’s has been described as “truthiness.” In all actuality, the opposite is the case.

If “truthiness” is defined as “truth that comes from the gut, not books” or, even more appropriately, “the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true,” then Mo’s statement is chock full of truthiness. Meanwhile, Stern’s is almost entirely composed of fact (tinged with smarm) — accurately (though narrowly) representing the action the owners want to take based on the current actual payroll.

The numbers used by Evans and the NBPA are based on a reality that doesn’t exist, but are presented earnestly and with righteous indignation. They’re based on rolling the current system, or something very much like it, forward for the next decade. However, that system and that reality ended — died — at midnight on June 30. These two sides are negotiating fighting over what the new system and the new reality will be.

Evans and the players frame the $7.6 billion as money that is already theirs that the owners are trying to take from them. Strictly speaking, the $7.6 billion is actually the difference between what the owners want to pay the players and what the players want to be paid. Neither is “real.” They are simply stakes set in the ground by the two sides.

Evans’ statement is a regurgitation of talking points, playing on a broadly accepted narrative that is mostly incorrect. Stern’s statement is spin based on narrowly defined facts that don’t hide anything, per se, but that require the listener have a certain level of understanding to grasp the total impact. Both are “untrue,” yet one is accepted and the other rejected.

Lie to Me

This is why I am skeptical when I read the conclusion from Tom Ziller of SBnation’s reaction.

I don’t understand why Stern feels the need to mislead the fans. Again, there’s no PR war to win. There are PR ramifications, but all Stern can do is hurt the future of his league by reinforcing the nasty stereotype that American pro athletes, and NBA players in particular, are greedy bums. What does Stern get out of lying to fans, other than perhaps some nods of approval from the Rick Reillys of the world? If you aren’t going to let us have basketball, at least give us the truth. We can handle it.

The fans don’t want anything to do with “the truth.” The fans want games. That’s it. They’ll treat things that support that goal as their truth, and they’ll reject anything to the contrary as lies. That’s as far as that goes. It’s a perfectly sensible stance to take. The truth isn’t going to help them get what they want, and quite frankly, “Stop running your mouths and get back to me when you get your acts together” is probably the appropriate message for the fans to send both sides.

“The truth” is a messy thing. (And I’m not just talking about Paul Pierce’s facial hair.) It sounds great in theory, but in practice, it’s really more of a “be careful what you wish for” type of thing. Transparency is another thing that people like a lot more when they are demanding it than when they actually have it. “Transparency” conjures a Wilsonian open-covenants-arrived-at-openly kind of vibe that makes everybody feel puffy and, you know, ethical. In fact, transparency is more akin to watching someone go to the bathroom — it’s an uncomfortable experience for all involved.

Actually, the relative transparency of the current CBA process is why most NBA onlookers are miserable right now. We have all been forced (or, more accurately, have volunteered our attention) to watch the “sausage-making” of the NBA. It is a process we have no control over, so it fills us with the most luscious of emotions — impotent rage.

But, hey. Here we sit, and we’re not going anywhere any time soon.  So let’s consider this.

Make It About Something Else – Anything Else

First, if the truth is what we want, then it raises the bar for everybody. We can’t just chastise Stern and then accept Evans when he says that “the last [players'] offer was [a giveback of] $630 million over a six-year period. That’s over a $100 million a year and they told us that it was pathetic” without bothering to understand why the owners may have been underwhelmed by such generosity.

Because, to the owners, a “concession” of $100 million per year is pathetic. Assuming they have reached the same conclusions that I reached here — and it’s an absolute certainty they have — $100 million represents only a fraction of the amount of money they think goes to waste annually in players’ salaries.  It does nothing to accomplish the “reset” Stern has said the owners feel they need to re-gain league-wide profitability. Especially when it’s tied to largely the same salary cap visor system that the owners are committed to changing.

If we’re demanding the truth, perhaps we should give some notice to the  NBPA’s entire strategy: deflect and distract. They must get people to ignore the fact that core purpose of the Collective Bargaining Agreement is to determine how much and in what manner the players get paid. Move the conversation away from any in-depth analysis of that — particularly regarding the paychecks given to the league’s also-rans who add little or nothing in terms of wins or revenue. That’s a total loser for the players, so their leadership has created the following marching orders.

Point to the fixed percentage of BRI and claim that as proof that the problem lies elsewhere. Hammer away about revenue sharing. Use the phrase “they should clean up their house first,” all the while ignoring the fact that it is their house. All of it. Their house.

Talk about what you are “giving back,” but never discuss that you’re really taking out. It’s the owners’ money, a fact actually reinforced by this silly insistence that it be treated like a hobby. Cast doubt on the financials that your own accountants audited and signed off on by rejecting certain line items, then allow the narrative to drift from “we don’t think interest and depreciation should be included” to “the owners are lying about their financials” and give it your tacit approval.

Cite the example of Golden State being sold for $450 million in 2010, complain how you didn’t share in that, thus proving interest on debt incurred in purchases is “not your problem.” Fail to mention that your players were paid almost $800 million in salaries and benefits during the time Chris Cohan owned the Warriors. Claim that “you helped build the franchise,” but don’t show this list of players or talk about the fact that those players lost 62% of their games and only made one playoff appearance.

And for God’s sake — this is the most important thing to remember — talk about David Stern’s salary. It is a sum that is obviously completely irrelevant to this entire conversation, but bring it up again and again. But be sure not to note that, even at the likely wildly overstated $23 million some have claimed, Stern still made less than half of what T-Mac and JO combined to make in 2010. (Of course, Tracy and Jermaine’s salaries, individually, are also complete irrelevancies, but, hey, you started it.)

Don’t forget to claim guaranteed deals as a birthright. But be sure not to get into any discussion as to why you should get such security. You can’t acknowledge the reality that every player — on some level — views each contract he signs at least as much a reward for getting to that point as compensation for future play. Better to claim, according to Evans, it’s what the league’s founding fathers would want.

The Bill Russells, Michael Jordans, Larry Birds and Magic Johnsons have done great things to allow us to make the salaries we have and wear these great uniforms. It’d be a shame to give up everything those guys have fought for.

Talk down to the public about the struggles that Michael Jordan faced while becoming perhaps the most famous person in the history of the world. Try to make us think of Bill Russell instead of Eddy Curry or Jamaal Tinsley. Evoke the memory of Elgin Baylor’s and Jerry West’s refusal to play in the 1964 NBA All-Star Game to make this feel like it’s about true labor benefits like pensions, better workplace conditions and the right to not play in so many unpaid exhibition tours — not about keeping the dream of that one big contract alive for most of their rank and file.

Lastly, emphasize the absolute worst case (and incredibly unlikely) scenario of what a hard cap will inevitably create without really being certain about the future. Consider this anecdote from another excellent Sam Amick piece:

As described by one such agent who was briefed about the owners’ proposal and what it could mean, a player such as Lakers forward Lamar Odom would see his salary plummet from $8.9 million to $2.6 million next season in one particular doomsday scenario, according to the union officials putting on the presentation.

A more measured and accurate response appears within a great piece from Zach Lowe of SI’s The Point Forward. Zach reached out to a few labor lawyers, agents, attorneys and economists for some expert opinions on how the institution of a hard cap would effect the payroll structure going forward.

And here’s what Jeffrey Kessler, lead outside counsel to the players’ union and a partner at the law firm Dewey & LeBoeuf, had to say.

“If you have an individual team hard cap, you are going to be desperate to maintain flexibility and to remove and replace players. And that means all but the stars would likely lose their guaranteed contracts. If you have a hard cap for every team, and you’re going to pay the stars of the game fairly, there isn’t going to be enough money left over for the other players. Every NBA player understands this. Big time.”

Now, I think Mr. Kessler is pretty close to the mark here, particularly in regards to limiting guaranteed contracts.  However, the definition of “enough money” depends on who you’re talking to. I mean, doesn’t that pay structure align more closely to the way the NBA actually works?  Further, if the NBPA leadership is using the Lamar Odom scenario to make sure every NBA player understands this “big time,” then they’re basically employing scare tactics on their own people.

But what they see can be illustrated by the example Zach Lowe created later in the same post:

It’s easy to say the players will earn what they earn, whether the cap is soft or hard, as long as total player salaries are tied to the league’s overall revenue. That hard cap scenario might be scary for those run-of-the-mill veterans, though. Imagine each team has a hard cap of $50 million, and they reserve $30 million of that for two superstars. That leaves $20 million for at least 11 players. Suddenly there are fewer guys with listed salaries in the $4 million-$6 million range and many more earning $1 million to $2 million. Even in a system in which players might end up earning more than their listed salary, it’s not hard to imagine them taking a big overall hit if the end-of-year pay bump they get is based upon a salary floor that is suddenly much lower.

Lowe is clearly and fairly representing a concern here that exists in many players’ minds, but I’m not entirely sure that the fear isn’t overblown.  First — and it’s a minor quibble —  the $50 million number is a bit light given the current proposal would put it closer to the mid-$60 million range. Second, there aren’t 60 superstars. Finally, it may be a bit of a stretch to assume that the market would behave purely that way.

I reached out to J.A. Sherman of the Thunder blog Welcome to Loud City on this final matter, and he expressed his skepticism. “The one thing I don’t buy is the idea that if there’s a $50 million hard cap, the two best players would end up taking around 60% of the space,” wrote Sherman in an email. “I don’t think you can assume a priori that if a price ceiling were to be placed below the supply/demand intersection that it would not also cause downward pressure on the top salaries as well. It may in some cases — we see that already with Miami — but I would think that the trend over time would reduce the disproportionate scaling.”

Put another way, as the league adapts to the new rules, the salary structure by player will start to look more and more like it does today, minus the guarantees and pro-rated downward based on a lower cap.

But, that type of uncertainty about what may happen is of no value in this context. For Billy Hunter and Jeffrey Kessler, its simply more expedient to tell horror stories of Lamar Odom — a quality player on a championship team — getting a 70% haircut,  and leave it at that. Particularly when you consider in a union/league with a membership of 450 or more players, the CBA will be decided by the bottom two-thirds of that group.

Evans says:

They’re unified, and as unified [as the players], and that’s great for them. It’s not about who’s more unified and having a battle of wills. It’s about knowing what’s right.

Of course, he’s completely wrong here. It is a battle of wills. Always has been, always will be. There is no “right.” There’s just what is agreed upon.

Even so, Maurice Evans believes he is “By God Right,” as do his compatriots.  Meanwhile, Stern and the largely silent owners hold the same measure of faith that they are “By God Right.”  What both should know, and are about to demonstrate, is that justice tends to favor the hand that is swifter with the sword.

Ultimately, demanding honesty from either side is something of a fool’s errand. It will be forthcoming from neither.  Each will continue to stick to their talking points, zealously and earnestly making their case. Truth is of no real benefit to either. Not when lies are just as often created in the ear as the mouth.

Topics: CBA Talk, Collective Bargaining Agreement, David Stern, Maurice Evans

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