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Owners’ latest loss is respect

Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck could end up paying out more to revenue sharing. Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck could end up paying out more to revenue sharing. (Aram Boghosian/For The Globe)
By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / July 2, 2011

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In an apparent exhibition of strength, the NBA instructed its teams to strip down their websites, removing every link, story, or photo that would identify a current player. For example, when you click on the Celtics’ roster and Paul Pierce’s name, you are directed to the league’s home page, not Pierce’s player page.

You will be hard-pressed to find a picture of any NBA player on the website, another apparent move to show the players that the owners control the league.

OK, let’s get this straight: To exert their power during this lockout, the owners plan to obliterate the image the league has worked feverishly to establish in the 10 years since Michael Jordan retired? It is immature at best, a low blow to the players, reminding them they can be eliminated with a click of the mouse.

No professional sports league flourishes when fans know the names of the owners as well as they do the players, and it appears the NBA will spend this lockout, however long it lasts, attempting to quash the enormous momentum generated by the just-concluded postseason.

The NBA owners spent yesterday morning attempting to wipe out every memory of the expired collective bargaining agreement, a 13-year relationship that reinvigorated the game but also cost the owners $300 million per year in losses.

They tend to ignore the fact that they created this situation by mandating that players agree to this flawed economic system in 1998. When the players finally agreed to a deal, salvaging a 50-game season, they were hardly perceived as winners - a limit on individual player salaries, a limit on contract lengths, no more Kevin Garnett megadeals for the next generation of high school products.

It appeared then that the players lost, and aging members of the Players Association executive committee walked back to their locker rooms having bowed down to the owners to secure the final slivers of their careers.

The owners had no idea how many players would garner the maximum salary without ever really deserving such a reward, a byproduct of smaller-market teams wanting to retain their standout players. And the owners had no idea how many players would ease up after earning those career-defining midlevel exception contracts. One NBA coach said the midlevel exception contract is terrible for the league because the player who usually earns the deal - generally a five-year contract worth around $30 million - loses the desire to improve.

During negotiations over the past few weeks, the players acknowledged they needed to give something back, a valid concession given how players such as Eddy Curry, Stephon Marbury, Steve Francis, and Maurice Taylor were grossly overpaid toward the end of their contracts.

But while commissioner David Stern had a look of concern and disappointment Thursday, the fact of the matter is the owners had anticipated this lockout for five years, their first step in straightening out their financial calamities.

The distressed look was merely role play for Stern because he fully understood a lockout was coming. Stern has admitted that some owners would lose less money with a work stoppage than they would if the season began on time, and this groundswell of solidarity is fueled by smaller-market owners exhausted from having to compete with fewer resources.

What could solve such problems is an improved revenue sharing plan, meaning Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck and Lakers owner Jerry Buss would have to share more of their war chests with Herb Kohl of Milwaukee or the Maloofs in Sacramento.

They would rather squeeze money out of the players first before they even decide to approach a new revenue-sharing plan, and that has the Players Association wondering if the owners are truly interested in compromise.

The owners’ “flex cap’’ plan addresses the high spending of Buss, Grousbeck, and the Mavericks’ Mark Cuban, all of whom spent at least $18 million over the suggested salary cap, but it does nothing to admonish the cash-strapped Maloofs, who invested just $44 million into their team and then reacted to the decline of their franchise by filing for relocation to Anaheim.

Stern shot down that application by strong-arming the city of Sacramento to build a palatial arena for a team with no stars. And the league’s move to strip down its websites will further add to the perception that the owners are dysfunctional and delusional. The players aren’t without reprimand either, but it’s absurd to expect the Players Association to fully cooperate with the owners’ campaign to reclaim their financial power over the league.

To prevent this train wreck that the NBA insists on causing, there needs to be true compromise, but the vision of billionaires arguing with millionaires over a $4 billion pie doesn’t exactly encourage a working-class fan base to embrace the league.

And neither does the ridiculous and vindictive act of stripping the players’ images, as if the fan is truly foolish enough to believe it’s anything more than a juvenile power move.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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