Random Thoughts on Player Freedom, Mortality, and Collective Bargaining

March 14th, 2014 by Nate Smith

It’s been a strange week in Believeland. Saturday, at Zydrunas Ilgauskas’ retirement celebration, a jubilant reunion of players and figures from the Cavaliers teams of the late aughts occurred at the Q. Shortly after, Jason Lloyd, penned a piece about how, “It was all the intricate planning of the former general manager, who was the architect for this ceremony and James’ role in it months ago.” The plan? “Perhaps the first gigantic step toward James’ return to this franchise.” But in light of Chris Grant’s firing and the Cavs instability, ESPN’s Brian Windhorst posted about how the “chances he [James] suits up for Cavs again fading fast.” This comes a couple weeks after Windhorst’s an article entitled, Could the Cleveland Cavaliers lose Kyrie Irving? Forgive my diction. I’ve been hooked on True Detective and my wife has been binge watching The Tudors while I write. But, it’s enough to make my head spin, these sordid dramas of American royalty: billionaires and their exchequers trying to control the lives of millionaires. It all seems so comically overwrought

Really? That was the plan? Lure James back with a jersey retirement ceremony? God, forgive me for ever doubting Chris Grant’s genius. He’s clearly a Machiavelli in a league full of Gerald Fords. Oy. Way to put a damper on a lovely ceremony.

Seriously, if LeBron James wants to come back to Cleveland, he should come back. If Kyrie Irving wants to go play somewhere else, he should go do it, and the Cavs should find a way to make that happen. This is America, not Tudor England. One should not be required to say and do one thing, and desire another. Life is too short to waste it wading through the manure produced from all these ridiculous machinations. So this summer, when the opportunity presents itself, the team and the city should simply ask, “do you want to be here?” Of course, we and the Cavs should tout our virtues, first, and do our best to make the team and the city a fulfilling to play for, but after those efforts, the question should be simple. And once a decision is reached, everyone should move on with a modicum of expedience and dignity. Until then, please, just play basketball. I’d like to watch some good games without having to spend each possession thinking about the playoffs, the summer, the futures of all the principals, and the next four years. Life is too short. Enjoy its moments.

Forgive me if I sound maudlin and exhausted. Yesterday, I found out that one of my closest friends from my youth has terminal cancer and is in hospice. She’s the same age as me. I’ve spent a lot of time this week thinking about life. The truth is, none of us know how long we have. Professional sports are an illusion: the celebration of youth and seeming invincibility conjured by rare talent, intricately honed. These players can seem like invincible demigods, until they are gone and slip unceremoniously from our memories, unless some random resonant deed granted them a sliver of immortality. But their minds and bodies are not immortal. They’re human, just like ours, and the careers of these men are fleeting. Athletes ought to be able to do what they want. They owe us the same courtesy and respect we all ought to treat each other with, but they owe no one fealty.

In light of that, I’ve been thinking about the entire notion of billionaires controlling millionaires. It’s led me to one inescapable conclusion, the players got royally screwed in the last collective bargaining agreement. (The thought-train leap from dying friends to collective bargaining agreements seems wild, but in times of sleeplessness, the mind wanders and avoids the painful). NBA teams are cash cows now. Almost every team is guaranteed profitability (if the Nets aren’t it’s because Mikhail Prokhorov chooses not to be). Forbes estimated that the average NBA team is worth $634 million. “Collectively the 30 teams are worth $19 billion versus $400 million in 1984 when there were 23 teams.” The Knicks, Lakers, and Bulls are worth over a billion dollars. League revenue is near $5 billion dollars (Forbes estimates $4.6, yet David Stern claimed $5 billion last year before he got quiet about it). Yet, despite this uptick in revenue, despite the fact that basketball is second only to Soccer as an internationally marketed sport, I estimated the total player salaries as just over $2 billion (this does not include amnesty payments as well as luxury tax payments). The Sports Guy put it best this week.

Billy Hunter didn’t just run that thing into the ground; he packed it with explosives and detonated 60 years of history. Nobody seems to care. By the way? I’m not sure Silver and the owners care, either — they say publicly how it’s frustrating not to have anyone to negotiate with, but really, everything gets to stay the same for them as long as the players’ union is fractured. Right now, it’s an owner-friendly CBA. They’re raking in money.

Jeff Schwartz reiterated that stance this week in his call for more urgency in a search for a players association director.

At a time when some are projecting that NBA franchise values will cross the $1 billion threshold in the near future, only 58 players in the league are earning in excess of $10 million annually. Only six players are earning more than $20 million — and five of those six players signed their original contracts under the guidelines of the previous labor deal. In Major League Baseball, by contrast, 22 players will make $20 million or more this upcoming season.

While the NBA collective bargaining agreement runs through 2021, the players or the owners may each opt out before December of 2016 and force both sides to craft a new labor agreement in the summer of 2017. The 2010 labor agreement moved the percentage of “basketball related income” that players receive to from 57% to 50%. Meanwhile, the league achieved record revenue growth internationally and through a new television deal in June of 2016. But the players are not without leverage any more.

The more I think about it, the more I wonder, “why do the players even have a union?” The NBA players union the NBA owners need the players to have a union a lot more than the players need to have a union. Some labor/anti-trust lawyer correct me if I’m wrong, but by de-certifying, the NBA players would each become individual contractors and deny the league the right to draft players or impose a salary cap, luxury taxes, restricted free agency, etc. Yes, the dissolving NBA Players’ association would make marketing player rights more difficult, and could conceivably abandon its support to retired players, but the Players’ Association could become a trade and marketing organization to meet those obligations rather than a union.

Suddenly, players would be free to go where they want, unless they’re under contract — no restricted free agency, no draft rights… Suddenly, the owners would no longer be able to collude with each other to keep player salaries down. The draft would be gone, but guess what else would be gone? Tanking. The idea is not without its drawbacks. Instead of universal rules for contracts and how players are payed and conditions, etc. each team would be able to impose their own vague conditions on contracts. And no one quite knows how trades would work. And yeah, this system would probably not be great for the Cavs, but the older I get the more I think that the current system is just stupid. People should be able to work where they want — do what they want. If you’re old enough to go die in the service of our country, you should have the agency to go play basketball in Denver, if that’s your dream.

Meanwhile, newly minted commissioner, Adam Silver, and many others around the league are pushing the idea of a 20 year old age limit in the NBA. This is nothing more than greed disguised as paternalism. The NBA just wants to collude with the NCAA to keep it’s free minor league system going, and weed out high-schoolers who could be busts, instead of the NBA having to pay those guys and figure this out on their own. The “one and done” rule is a mess for major college basketball programs but has been a boon to mid-majors who can keep their teams together, like Wichita State. Adam Silver wants to avoid roster holes like Anthony Bennett and the rest of the 19 year-olds who really could use another year of college, but if a guy wants to make some money to play basketball, he shouldn’t have to go through this whole ridiculous, arbitrary system. Of course, that’s one place the NBA players have a vested interest in a union: being able to exclude the youngest.  Without the CBA, anyone could get into the NBA, thus diverting money from the veterans to the apprentices.

I’ve gone pretty far down the rabbit hole here, but my thesis stands. Life is far too short to let billionaires make a bunch of arbitrary hoops for people to jump through for young people to play basketball (or any other sport for that matter). It should all be simpler, and allow men to do what they’re capable of doing on their own terms. It’s a silly conclusion to a silly essay that concludes days of contemplation on the fleeting nature of mortal existence. But since I don’t know how long I have, nor do any of us, I’d like to spend my time doing something I love — writing — even about a silly subject I love, like the NBA, in a forum I love. Would that we were all so lucky to do what we want with our lives all the time, (though we all need our Adam Silvers to save us from ourselves). Thanks, again, for your audience.