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NBA Labor Battle Continues, Threatening Entire Season

The entire NBA season is on the brink as talks between players and owners, aimed at ending the lockout, break down. Ray Suarez discusses what's at stake with Ian Thomsen of Sport Illustrated.

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    Now, why the entire NBA season is on the brink, as talks aimed at ending a lockout break down.

    Ray Suarez has the story.


    The Dallas Mavericks celebrated last June when they beat the Miami Heat for the NBA title, but nobody is celebrating now. After two years of so far fruitless bargaining, the league's labor contract expired in June, and owners locked out the players.

    Talks continued, but on Monday, the players rejected a 50/50 split of revenues, down from 57 percent in the old contract.

    Billy Hunter is executive director of the Players Association.

  • BILLY HUNTER, NBA Players Association:

    We have done everything anybody could reasonably expect of us, but the players just felt that they had given enough.


    The union voted to disband, so players can sue the league for billions of dollars in damages.

    NBA commissioner David Stern already canceled the first month of the regular season, and he warns the entire season is on brink.

    DAVID STERN, NBA commissioner: The players losing all that they have worked very hard to achieve, you know, are — it's really a tragedy. We're about to go into the nuclear winter of the NBA.


    Both sides, and the team's home cities, now stand to lose billions of dollars.

    For more on what's behind the breakdown and what's at stake, we turn to Ian Thomsen, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated who covers the NBA.

    And, Ian, you just heard David Stern talking about a nuclear winter. The union says the talks have broken down. Are we at the point of no return?

  • IAN THOMSEN, Sports Illustrated:

    No, not quite, Ray. It's not all done yet. There's still about a month-and-a-half to try to save the season.

    But I think it got a lot worse. And I think it's going to be a lot harder for the two sides come together now that lawyers are involved. It's added another layer. There are different concerns now, the fact that a lawsuit is being filed. I think all of this makes a difficult situation more difficult. And I really would be surprised if there is a season.


    Is the revenue split really the main point in contention now? What are the owners demanding, and what have the players offered?


    Well, it does, in a way, all come down to the revenue split, the money, as it always does, doesn't it, in these situations.

    The players have given up about $280 million next year — or this year, if there is a this year. They have given that up. And in return, they want to have a system of their liking. They want to have the free agency that they are accustomed to. They want to be able to see the bigger-market teams bid for their services.

    And the system that the NBA wants to put in is a more austere kind of system, where the Lakers, the Los Angeles Lakers, who spent more than double what the Sacramento Kings spent last year on players and other fees, the NBA wants to narrow that gap. And they want everybody to be paying basically the same, much like teams in the NFL do. They're pursuing parity.

    What it really comes down to, the players want a free market system, and the owners want regulation.


    Why has the Players Association disbanded, or is on the verge of disbanding? What does that act allow them to do that they couldn't do before as a collective bargaining agent?


    Well, it clearly looks like the act of a union that felt cornered and had run out of options. And they felt like they had been handed this ultimatum by David Stern, the commissioner, to accept this offer, or else.

    And instead of accepting it or trying to negotiate further, they disbanded so they can file a lawsuit. They have kind of tried to change the terms of the argument. But what they have done is, that act has made it more difficult now for negotiations to continue.

    And, you know, there's hope on the union side that this will create more leverage for them, but they're running out of time to exert that leverage.


    The average NBA player's career is only a little more than four years. Are we looking at journeymen players who may be sacrificing what amounts to a quarter of their career if they lose this season?


    It's going to be very interesting years from now to ask these people on both sides of the negotiating table, how do you feel about the way things worked out, if they end up losing a season over this?

    Because when you look at the negotiations and how they progressed, they were actually relatively close to coming to a deal before they seemed to break off now. And so you would ask them years from now, was it all worth it, to lose a season, when you were so close? And when you lose a season, the players are giving up $2 billion worth of income that they're going to be dividing up.

    And I just think a lot of players, as this goes on, if they lose a season, there's going to be a lot of second-guessing of what's happened. And I think that will happen on the owners' side, too, that they're going to be second-guessing themselves as well.


    Well, there's the immediate loss of income, but let's talk a little bit about the aftereffects. Hockey lost the entire '04-'05 season. The NBA played a severely truncated 50-game season back in '98. Major League Baseball lost pretty much half-a-season back in the '90s.

    When they do come back to play, are there aftereffects? Are there sacrifices? Are there effects that trail off into the future?


    There always are.

    And what's so interesting about this decision, this joint decision, that's a passive decision, they weren't actively trying to come close to blowing up the season, but that's effectively what the two sides are doing here.

    And when they come back, if there is no season, not only will they have to deal with the consequences that all these other leagues and situations that you have discussed have had to deal with, but they're doing this during terrible economic times, as we all know. And the national mood is ugly at times.

    And it's going to be very interesting to see if these doomsday predictions that have been made about big-time sports for decades now as the price of sports has gone up, the price of tickets, and there's always been this talk, are fans going to keep paying these prices? And they always have. It's going to be interesting now to see if they do this time. Is this sort of the doomsday scenario that everybody has been talking about?

    The NBA is the number-three league in America. And they will be coming off possibly the loss of a season during horrible times. And they have really made themselves vulnerable.


    And, quickly, before we go, are there any franchises in a 30-team league that are so weak that they may not survive a strike?


    Well, you know, there has been talk of contracting, contracting two teams, among the owners.

    And the obvious candidate would be the New Orleans Hornets, who are owned by the league. They had to be bought back by the league because their owner had to sell. He needed the money and he could not find a buyer. So the league actually had to take it off his hands. And that would be one team for sure to look at.


    Ian Thomsen of Sports Illustrated, thanks for joining us.


    Hey, thank you, Ray.

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