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We're Getting Basketball for Christmas—But at What Cost?

But in the midst of celebrating basketball’s unexpected return, it’s worth remembering what got us into this mess, and who got us out.

For basketball fans, this holiday season is off to a good start. We already know what we’re unwrapping on Christmas morning: a shiny, new NBA season.

It seems nearly unbelievable that this lockout—the second longest in NBA history—has almost officially ended. Basketball observers had come to grips with the seeming inevitability that we wouldn’t see NBA games until late 2012 at the earliest. It looked as though talks had broken down for the last time two weeks ago, when the players said they would get the federal court system involved. And then, out of nowhere in the middle of the night on Thanksgiving weekend, it was over. By Saturday morning, pundits were ranking the free agent market and speculating about Greg Oden’s health just like old times.

This development is unquestionably a net positive. After the prolonged slump that followed the 1999 lockout, the NBA completed its comeback last season. The league’s talent is the best in years. There is a lot to be excited about in the 66-game season.

But it’s also worth remembering what got us into this mess, and who got us out. The lockout was not, as it was often portrayed, a battle between two groups of spoiled brats acting equally petulant. The team owners and NBA commissioner David Stern were working to slash employees’ pay and tell them they were better off for it. If the season had been canceled, it would have fallen squarely on the owners’ shoulders—they were the ones who made unfair offer after unfair offer as part of a greedy power trip.

And when a deal was struck in the wee hours of Saturday morning, it was a direct result of the players stepping up to be the bigger men. The players hate this deal—it cuts their share of revenues from 57 percent to 50 despite the fact that they comprise about 99.9 percent of the league’s draw. Derek Fisher, the Lakers forward and president of the players union, did not smile as he announced the agreement, The New York Times noted, “appearing more relieved than happy.”

“No one on the players’ side praised the agreement,” the newspaper added delicately.

The players did earn a handful of concessions—most relating to maintaining an open free-agent market—but they’re small potatoes compared to the fact that they gave up $3 billion over 10 years to play basketball this season. They may have had to resort to the nuclear option—threatening legal action—but the players accepted a deal that was worse than they deserved. The locker-room attendants and concession sellers and parking valets whose livelihoods depend on basketball games in a way that neither athletes nor owners can imagine should thank the guys on the floor, not the ones who pay their salaries, for giving them their jobs back.

Plenty of pundits have insisted that it’s time to stop “playing the blame game” and just be happy basketball is back. If only it were that simple. Both sides did themselves a disservice by announcing the agreement in the middle of the night on a holiday weekend, when they weren’t forced to fully explain the terms and the process. If we now rush into free agency and preseason practices without having an honest discussion about the dysfunction in pro sports—greed, paternalism, racially fraught power dynamics—that nearly wiped out a season, the same issues are bound to arise again.

The new NBA contract will last for at least six years, but nothing is stopping future NBA commissioner Adam Silver from repeating the mistakes of Stern, his predecessor, in 2017. The National Hockey League’s collective bargaining agreement expires next year, and Major League Baseball’s in 2016, posing two earlier opportunities for a protracted sports labor dispute. So while I’ll happily park myself on the couch and root against the Heat on Christmas Day, I’ll rue the missed opportunity to change the false narrative of greedy millionaires trying to bilk fans for as much money as possible.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user the_junes

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