“Let the poets write that he had the tools of greatness, but the voices of his better angels were shouted down by his obsessive need to win.”
– The West Wing
This lockout is perceived as two sides in a standoff with one another, owners and players. In reality, it’s six sides. You have the rich owners, the poor owners, the moderate owners, the superstar players, the role players, and… the agents. When it gets down to it, the agents are the men behind the curtain in this little play. Those escalating salaries that the owners themselves agreed to with ridiculous, long contracts? The owners are on the hook for them, those were the product of the owners’ decisions. But they were created by the work of agents, forever raising value, forever edging the bottom line (and subsequently their cut) higher and higher. It is the agents advising the players on their money to prepare for a lockout, it is the agents keeping the players in line to whatever degree they can.
Let’s be clear, this is not to vilify agents. If we’re making a list of “money-grubbing” and “reasonable” we’ve got everyone involved on one side and pretty much no one on the other. That’s how this works, and how it would work with any group of people and if you think you and your cohorts wouldn’t do the same, then let’s have a long drawn out conversation about the value of financial success and philanthropy. But let’s not because this is a sports blog and that’s boring.
The agents are simply doing their job. The problem is, they’ve begun to get antsy. See, they don’t like this patient, reasonable waiting game Billy Hunter has decided to pursue. They want to get aggressive. They want to use the guns they have. And the one gun they have? Is decertification and a pursuit in the courts. Doing so has two effects. It represents a remote but distinctly aggressive threat against the owners to coerce them into surrendering the high ground and opening up a very real negotiation that will result in the middle ground the players are pursuing. It will royally tick off both David Stern and the ownership group, settling in for a tense, vicious, and deeply personal conflict, even more so than the lockout currently exists in.
And that’s totally the cabinet they want to open. From Yahoo! Sports:
The owners are counting on panic to take over the union once the players start missing checks. That’s when the owners want to cut a deal, when the players are most vulnerable and fearful of losing a full season’s salary. The players risk getting the same lousy deal next year after already losing a year’s salary.
Essentially, it’s come down to this: Hunter is still selling diplomacy, but the agents want to commence fighting. No one expects the league to seriously negotiate issues until they fear the courts could rule against them. The owners want what they want – hard cap, rollback on salaries and guaranteed profits – and they aren’t interested in compromises. The longer the union waits to decertify and file an antitrust suit, the less chance there is of getting a reasonable agreement and saving the season.
Woj’s article has all sorts of wonderful news, like that the agents are losing faith in Hunter, which causes a fracture and could move Hunter to the fringes of the fold. Think of that as if the old war hawks had captured the President’s ear during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The good news in that scenario would be that none of you would be complaining about the Miami Heat right now since it would still glow in the dark. The bad news is that it would have meant World War III. Hunter is the voice of reason. He’s being patient and keeping lines of communication open.
Hunter’s taken a beating because in how this has rolled out, he looks like a punching bag. He’s not actively attacking the owners, simply holding the line on the barricades and keeping the siege at bay. The agents think the best defense is a good offense. But Hunter’s way is a long-term approach. It favors reasonable discussion and business negotiations, the core of this debate which has moved sadly towards dramatics and ideology. Eventually, the owners will cease rabble-rousing and come back to the table for a real conversation, and if the union’s efforts to gain employment overseas or through other means of generating income are successful, the players will be stronger for it.
The players need to be Johnny Cash. Steady like a freight train, sharp like a razor. The owners want them Bombs Over Baghdad. But as Chris Ballard pointed out when discussing Michael Redd (the exact kind of contract the owners are trying to protect themselves from) in “Art of a Beautiful Game,” that means sometimes you hit the enemy, sometimes you hit civilians.
The length of this unnecessary lockout depends on cooler heads prevailing. If these agents, who run this world more than is let on, storm the gates and stage a coup, the fans might as well flee for the neighboring nations of “Other Sports Land.” Because we won’t be seeing the league outside of a courtroom for a good, long time.