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Labor wars in pro leagues now are fought through the media

Whether it is the NBA, NFL, NHL or MLB, all sides in the disputes like to take their arguments to the public, whose opinion doesn't seem to matter much.

January 01, 2011|Mark Heisler

How to write about the labor situation so readers' eyes don't roll back in their heads ...

Assuming, of course, anyone got this far.

The basic approach is to present the facts and arguments and let readers go from there, per Thomas Jefferson's "marketplace of ideas." With NFL and NBA management and their players in alternate universes preceding next season's expected rumbles, it's like translating for warring species.

Tell them we'll unleash such a storm, there'll be another Ice Age before Super Bowl LXV or whatever we're up to!

Unfortunately, with changes from Jefferson's time when the media included town criers, what was merely confusing has become a years-long horror show, or shows.

With today's fractured, fighting-for-survival media obliged to report anything anyone says, the press is carried along in a data stream that always seems to lead to worst-case scenarios.

The impression it conveys via all its platforms is that of an apocalypse coming, daily.

This is called "the news."

It's especially pertinent in labor negotiations where posturing — the lingua franca — zooms into headlines and reverberates through talk shows like rolling thunder.

That endangered NFL season is eight months off. The NBA's is nine months off. That would make at least three years of doomsaying, going back to George W. Bush's presidency.

Whatever misgivings NFL and NBA officials had were multiplied by the flash depression of 2008-09. Expiration of the NFL and NBA bargaining agreements at that point might have been a Perfect Storm for players, leading to huge concessions.

In 2009, National Basketball Players Assn. Director Billy Hunter, appearing with Commissioner David Stern, said he was willing to re-open the deal that ran through 2011, noting, "We all understand that we live and benefit from the success of the NBA."

To the extent the economy has recovered, it's now an Imperfect Storm with Hunter and Stern back trading thunderbolts.

Whether times are bad, or were bad, Forbes magazine's Kurt Badenhausen cites former presidential chief of staff Rahm Emanuel's maxim: "A crisis is a terrible thing to waste."

In any case, labor stories should come with cautionary warnings.

—Everything until contracts actually expire, is skirmishing.

Nothing in labor happens without deadlines and the first real one is 30 days before the season, the drop-dead date for the openers.

—Off-season lockouts sound ominous but would only signal coming battles.

This is case in the NFL and NBA, as opposed to baseball, where Commissioner Bud Selig says he only wants to "tinker."

Unless they actually don't play games, NBA officials call them "soft lockouts."

—Why are fans supposed to care again?

This is millionaires versus billionaires.

The players are rich, the owners richer. When they're done crying about the money they lost, they'll still be rich and we'll still be us.

If someone has to worry, let them do it, it's their game.

If it were ours, we'd advise splitting the baby in half, like Solomon the Wise, but nobody ever asks us anything.

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