Even in the swelter of summer, it’s possible to envision — borrowing from that noted meteorologist George Harrison — a long cold lonely winter. Let’s call the roll.
The Atlanta Falcons? Locked out.
The Atlanta Hawks? Locked out.
The Atlanta Thrashers? Long gone.
Isn’t there anybody here left to play our reindeer games?
The Thrashers have rolled north to Manitoba. Some Falcons are tossing a football around on a high school field in Buford. The Hawks just got started doing nothing. Reading from the NBA’s official release:
During the lockout, players will not receive their salaries; teams will not negotiate, sign or trade player contracts; players will not be able to use team facilities for any purpose, and teams will not conduct or facilitate any summer camps, exhibitions, practices, workouts, coaching sessions or team meetings.
How have we come to this? Blame the economy. As an NBA executive (not an owner) told me a couple of summers ago: “Even rich people lost real money this time.” The NBA is claiming that more than two-thirds of its clubs are losing money. Some quibble with this, citing the usual creative accounting that can turn profit into loss, but it’s clear the world’s biggest basketball league is undergoing a rough patch.
The NFL is a bit different. Owing to TV contracts, it’s virtually impossible to lose money running an NFL franchise. Even its owners aren’t making that claim. What they’re saying is they just aren’t making the kind of money they’d like to make. (Hey, join the club.)
The NBA lockout figures to be different, in style if not effect, than its football counterpart. The NFL players’ union has decertified itself, thereby freeing it from the constraints of collective bargaining and driving the matter into court. (At last check, the owners were winning the litigation game.) The NBA says it will reach an agreement through collective bargaining, and it probably will. Because the NBA is smarter than the NFL.
Not to put too fine a point on it, the difference between NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and the NBA’s David Stern is the difference between dull and sharp. And there’s also this: The NBA has longer track record of seeing its players as partners, as opposed to employees. The NBA was the first league to guarantee its players a percentage of the revenue. The NBA also never staged embarrassing games with “replacement players” during a work stoppage.
The latest NFL talks have been reported as productive, but — not to go all Yogi Berra on you — there’s no agreement until both sides agree. July is the month NFL teams traditionally go to camp, and we’re there already.
The NBA has more wiggle room. Its regular season doesn’t commence until late October, and the belief among NBA-watchers is that the key date is Labor Day. If the lockout is ongoing when September arrives, it could last a good while longer. (The last NBA lockout lopped over from 1998 into 1999: I covered a Hawks’ welcome-back scrimmage at Alexander Memorial Coliseum on a Saturday in January; two days later I flew to Miami to cover the Falcons in the Super Bowl.)
Beyond litigation and legalities and all that jazz, we need to say this: These are sports. They’re supposed to be our diversion, our refuge from reality. Now they’re just a double dose of a too-real reality that money’s tight and people are greedy and the world is going to Hades in a hand basket. At times such as this — not that there has ever been a time such as this — we wonder why it is we came to care about these silly games in the first place.
Ah, well. Maybe the Braves will play deep into October. (They’re capable.) And you know how I always say Atlanta is at heart a college football town? Good thing, huh?
By Mark Bradley