Biegler waxes on the underlying narrative and risk of the lockout. -- TZ
ESPN: The Magazine publishes an ongoing piece entitled "Show Us Your Closet" or "Out of the Closet" or something to that effect that features professional athletes taking readers on a tour of their wardrobe. A recent edition showcased Joe Johnson and his shoe closet. A shoe closet that had literally thousands of pairs of shoes, many of which Johnson admitted he had never worn, and was protected by some combination of code, handprint, eye scan and Rachmaninoff piano solo. I thought at the time, as did many others, that it was a humorously unfortunate piece to run in the midst of a protracted labor dispute between NBA owners and players. And it was a particularly unfortunate player to have featured as Johnson, more than anyone with the possible exceptions of Eddy Curry and Rashard Lewis, has personified the excess of recent NBA contracts.
Labor disputes are resolved, to some degree, by one side or the other's ability to engender popular support. One side, or the other, is usually a victim of inequity. One side, or the other, is usually being taken advantage of. I am ardently pro-labor largely because most members of my father's family were Eastern European coal miners in Southern Utah who spoke little English and exposed themselves daily to black lung. If there was not some structural support system to prevent the working class from being taken advantage of there is no doubt they would be taken advantage of.
At least from a perception standpoint, the NBA labor dispute exists at the opposite end of this spectrum. This has been depicted as a fight between millionaires and billionaires. Because it is a fight between millionaires and billionaires. And this is why, many would argue, the players, despite so clearly being in the right, have struggled with popular support. The NBA, more than any other professional sports league, overcompensates its players. NBA players, more than any other professional athletes, have options outside of the NBA. Maybe playing in Greece isn't ideal, but it's a better alternative to those afforded back-up long snappers that end up managing Sharper Images in Tulsa.
Ostensibly this is the leverage the Association is currently using in its negotiations. That NBA players, as their shoe compounds would indicate, are already richly compensated. That owners do indeed need to be saved from themselves. That owners do indeed deserve to be saved from themselves. But the problem, of course, is that that isn't the real leverage the Association is using. The problem is the leverage the Association is covertly, maybe even sub-consciously, using is the leverage it always uses when there's a dispute with players, whether regarding the age limit, or the dress code, or even the Heatles. It is the issue that dogs the NBA daily no matter how much we may sophisticate as a fan base, culture, country. It is the issue of race.
The NBA, it is often said, will never be as popular professionally as the other major sports because of the fundamental disconnect between the core viewing audience of professional sports and the core participating in professional basketball. The middle aged white man, historically, is at odds culturally with the 20 something African American. Now this argument, to most of us, seems antiquated, and it is, but it keeps showing up. There is a chicken and egg like quality to it. Does a middle class white fan-base resent professional basketball players because they're blacks who happen to be multimillionaires? Or do they resent professional basketball players because they're multimillionaires who happen to be black? It is an ugly question to ask and an even uglier question to answer. And it is a question the NBA has gone to great lengths to make moot. The more young people that grow up in the culture of basketball, the more that the culture of basketball becomes culture the more the issue of race in basketball becomes less an issue and more the perception of an issue.
And this, to me, is the fundamental sin of the lockout. That the NBA is squalidly, cynically leveraging the exact thing that it, at least superficially, has spent the last 3 decades trying to transcend. The perception of race. It isn't that NBA players are multimillionaires. It's that they're multimillionaires with thousands of pairs of Jordans. This is the reason Russian oligarchs and destitute Vegas carnies can somehow come across sympathetically. Because of cultural dissonance. The NBA knows this. The NBA is the most self aware business there is. The NBA knows not just that is has the luxury of a long season, public disinterest until at least late January and arena revenue. It has the luxury of decades of disconnect. A disconnect it has worked to bridge simply by bringing the public the game of basketball. It is not just depriving the public of that game, it is depriving the public of what that game represents.
That is the real tragedy in all of this. Not that we're losing two weeks of a season and that by losing two weeks of the season we will almost inevitably lose more. The real tragedy isn't that it sets back all the goodwill the NBA earned after last year's playoffs. The real tragedy is that it, perhaps tacitly, sets back race relations. Which is, fundamentally, what basketball is all about. And it is why a lockout, even two weeks' worth of one, matters. We, the fans, the owners, the players, remain trapped in a closet.