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Bob Ryan

NBA is inviting irrelevance

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / October 19, 2011

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With all due respect to the men negotiating their fannies off on both sides of this NBA labor/management impasse, we, the public, don’t care about the details.

I think that’s a safe general statement. And in case anyone really does, it’s only in the academic sense. It’s not because any of us actually can relate to the issues.

Once upon a time, there was a great need for the professional athletes of America to have adequate representation while attempting to carve out a fair working relationship between themselves and the owners. Marvin Miller, an economist and a veteran of serious, real-world negotiations in such enterprises as the steel industry, famously said that the baseball players he was hired to represent in 1966 were the “most oppressed’’ workers he ever had encountered. That was a bit hyperbolic. I’m sure Cesar Chavez smirked when he heard that one.

Consider, however, his first primary achievement as head of the Players Association: Getting the minimum annual wage hiked from $6,000 to $10,000.

Yes, indeed, the baseball players needed somebody to look out for them.

We’re talking 1966. We had jet planes, indoor plumbing, automatic transmission, and even color TV. We’re not talking “Little House On The Prairie.’’ A guy making 10 grand wasn’t exactly engaged in a glamorous lifestyle.

Contrast that with the modern NBA. Today’s 12th, 13th, 14th, and 15th men are making $475,000 per, give or take. That’s progress.

The days of the oppressed athlete are over. Thanks to the dedicated work of the Marvin Millers, Ed Garveys, and Larry Fleishers, the baseball, football, and basketball players were taken off the plantation and placed into the workforce, with appropriate salaries and benefits. I have deliberately omitted hockey from the list because in those crucial years, those players had the misfortune to be repped by the devious Alan Eagleson.

Hockey players were far behind the curve, and are still trying to catch up. The poor hockey players have been oppressed and exploited, both internally and externally. I’m sure their new head man, Donald Fehr, has taken note.

The fact is that in all key areas, the tough battles already have been fought and won by the players, all of whom have deals their forefathers of the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s never would have believed possible. Nowadays, we’re just haggling over how to apportion the swag. These aren’t farm workers hoping for a living wage.

In that regard, no group of North American pro athletes has a better deal than the basketball players. No matter what comes out of these current negotiations, they still will have the best deal in sports and they will remain the envy of their baseball, football, and hockey brethren.

That doesn’t mean anyone should be overtly rooting for the NBA owners. They are no more trustworthy as a group than they’ve ever been. In fact, I’m not sure that if some of these people had been in power when the tough battles I have just referred to were being fought they ever would have allowed the players to receive a deal as generous as the one they’ve been enjoying for the last quarter-century. I suspect some of these new guys think some of those old guys must have been drugged.

Commissioner David Stern is asking the Players Association and the American sporting public to believe that, despite astronomical ticket prices and juicy TV contracts, 22 NBA teams are losing money. He says the only solution is an entirely new economic model.

The Players Association isn’t buying it, in part because we all know that corporations often employ bookkeepers who can do with numbers what Rajon Rondo can do with the basketball. The other part is they have been living far too well for far too long and by now believe they are, well, entitled.

I promised I wouldn’t get bogged down in the details, and I will keep that promise. The public doesn’t really care how these guys split the available 4 billion dollars in question, and I suggest strongly they find out some way to do it in an expeditious manner, while a few people still care.

Whenever there is labor strife in professional sports, the fans automatically reach for the Excedrin. “Billionaires vs. Millionaires’’ is the in-vogue description of the circumstance, and that’s the gospel truth in the NBA, where the average salary is in excess of $5 million, and, yes, I know the difference between “average’’ and “median.’’

What both sides must realize is that the sports world will get along very nicely without the NBA. Do these people not understand that in this country at the present time, there is the NFL, and there is Everything Else? America grew very antsy as football training camp time approached and there was no deal. The NBA cancels a portion of its regular season and in many locales the news isn’t even reported on the first sports page.

Football now runs until the first Sunday in February. Pitchers and catchers report two weeks later. March Madness takes care of that month. The NHL actually has gained some national traction. Who needs the NBA?

“Nobody can identify with either side,’’ says Ronn Torossian, president and CEO of 5W Public Relations, whose business it is to take the public’s temperature on these matters. “And if the NBA cancels the season, it will be an absolute disaster. The NHL should be holding daily prayer sessions.’’

Memo to the NBA: There is only one league this country can’t live without, and it isn’t yours.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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