Occupy Hardwood part 1: An ACL tear to one is an ACL tear to all

November 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

First, my apologies to this blog.

I haven’t been writing, mostly because the time I would be spending doing that has been taken up with Occupy. This is not an acceptable compromise for me. I have to do both.

So, here’s some words about the two things that, as an anarcho-roundball fanatic, I think about all the freaking time: the Occupy movement and the NBA lockout.

Most of the people who read my blog probably don’t even know this, but for those of you who missed it, the NBA locked out the players’ union (referred to hereafter as NBAPA), stopping all basketball-related activities until the union agrees to concessions that the league says will help it become profitable and keep individual, small-market teams from losing money.

Of course, there being billions of dollars at stake, there’s a lot more to it than that. Lots of writers on the internet have had fantastic coverage and analysis on the lockout, talking quite a bit about how this money should be split, about what’s fair and who’s right, and what the true stakes of the lockout are for the game of basketball. I’m not going to duplicate that work. I implore you to read Ziller and Truehoop for that.

And while I’m interested in following the lockout because I love watching basketball played at the highest level and I can’t wait for it to start again, I am also dreading the end result of this beast. Because the NBA lockout has very real consequences for me, my family, and the rest of the 99%.

What seems to be lost in the shuffle in all the discussion over the lockout is that, even though this is a struggle between millionaires and billionaires over how to divide an obscene sum of money, the NBAPA is still a labor union, and this is still, fundamentally, a conflict between workers and business owners. Not only that, but the NBAPA is on average the highest paid union in the world. NBA owners love to trot out this factoid, as if when labor is paid more than other labor, all of a sudden a disparity in wealth is unfair. But it is significant if for no other reason that most of these NBA team owners have multi-billion dollar interests owning just about anything and everything else. Forcing the players’ union to take a collective 22% paycut, as the owners have been fighting for all along, sends a strong message to the employees of their other businesses.

The message is this: “Listen, I don’t like cuting your wages by almost a quarter any more than you do, but times are tough right now. Even the NBA players had to tighten their belts, and now it’s time for everyone to do the same. (Me? Oh god no. I’m eating filet-de-unicorn tonight).”

Unions are precarious right now — just ask state employees in Wisconsin, or Ohio, etc. –and the current recession(1) is being used as an excuse to cut benefits and roll-back wages for employees of all businesses, whether the business itself is going underwater or taking in money hand over fist (see the Verizon strike). As the old slogan goes, an injury to one is an injary to all.

On the other hand, the protests in Wisconsin earlier this year were the most effective public labor mobilization in this country in over a decade, and through Occupy Oakland we just had the first (“)general(“) strike in the US since 1946.

Occupy has begun to look at labor, too, though I’m not sure if Occupy knows why or how other than that’s what you’re supposed to do if you’re trying to build a people’s movement against entrenched and inflexible corporate/capital power. Union mobilization saved the Wall St. encampment on Cleaning Day a few weeks ago, and the aforementioned general strike is, to date, the most significant action that’s come from the Occupy movement.

While the solidarity of purpose is present between labor unions and young ne’er-do-wells, for the optimist looking like an echo of France in ’68, this association could very easily fall apart for the same fundamental reason: Labor is a strategic means by which people organize, not a visionary means as Occupy is. Labor, while it certainly has the visionary goal of improving the lives and situations of working people, is by definition strategic: it must at some point focus on the next contract, the one after that, and so on.

This is not a critique of labor, though — in fact, it’s the opposite. From labor, I think the Occupy movement can and must learn strategic, campaign-based organizing. Not because the Occupy movement needs a strategy, but (as I’ll get to in part 2), by positioning itself as leaderless, Occupy is creating many leaders, and has the potential to empower many people to enact many strategies, simultaneously. While Occupy has power and legitimacy from the fact that it doesn’t focus around one campiaign, this doesn’t mean that campaigns are bad. It means that it has the size and the organizational freedom to wage, essentially, infinity campaigns.

Now, in my opinion, the most important successes of the Occupy movement have already been accomplished, and they have nothing to do with strategy (as I’ll discuss in part 3, the finale of this missive). But developing campaigns and strategically assessing how to accomplish them is a necessary part of leveraging power and turning the types of cultural shifts Occupy is creating into tangible and empowering social change.

First, though, we’re going to need all of our numberless leaders to learn how to do campaigns. And to do that, I’m going to pull out one of my favorite organizing tools in the whole wide world: the Midwest Academy strategy chart. And I’m going to fill out selected sections of it here after the jump, using the NBAPA’s campaign to achieve a more favorable contract from the NBA as our blueprint model. Note that this is from the NBAPA’s point of view. Yes I realize that this whole exercise is more than a bit silly.

Hopefully, though, I can both demonstrate to Occupistas how to plan a strategic campaign in order to accomplish specific goals, as well as maybe explain to NBAniks from outside the world of community organizing what the NBAPA has been, could be, or should be doing during the labor struggle. (continued after the jump).

(1) Or as I like to call it, “The Really Good Depression”.

NBAPA Collective Bargaining Strategy Chart


1. List the long-term objectives of your campaign.

  • Build a foundation for NBA players to receive the best compensation possible for their labor.
  • Maintain and build upon the previous successes of the NBAPA, to ensure that union victories and the ability of the players to receive their rightful share of NBA revenues, as those who are most directly responsible for the generation of that revenue, remain ebullient for this and future generations.

2. State the intermediate goals for this issue campaign. What constitutes victory?

  • Receive a contract in which NBA players get over 50% of the Basketball Related Income (BRI), as to reflect the fact that NBA players, as a collection of the best basketball players in the world and some of the most well-known personalities in professional sports, are responsible for more than half of the NBA’s earnings.
  • Maintain player-friendly “system issues”, such as a soft salary cap, key contract provisions such as standard guaranteed contracts, the mid-level exception, and the sign-and-trade, in order to protect the “middle class” of the NBAPA as created in the 1999 CBA, and maintain options and freedom for players in being able to choose the best employment for their services.
  • End the lockout and play a full 2011-2012 season, for the future health of the NBA as a business and so that our members can receive full compensation for the contracts they have signed.

How will the campaign…

  • Win concrete improvement in people’s lives?
    – This campaign will improve the lives of our members and their dependents by ensuring they each receive the most robust compensation for their services possible.
    – By virtue of being the most public labor dispute in the US, this campaign will help the lives of American workers by demonstrating itself as a victory for labor in a time when the current financial climate is leading many employers to attack labor.
  • Alter the relations of power?
    – By standing up to the NBA owners through their unreasonable demands and bad-faith negotiations, we will demonstrate that the NBAPA and unions in general can have a say in their own livelihoods, and are not at the beck and call of their employers.

Organizational Considerations

3. List internal problems that have to be considered if the campaign is to succeed.

  • Many NBA players, whether they lead extravagant lifestyles or have a large number of dependents from back home, go through their money very quickly. The players’ position during the 1999 lockout was severely worsened by a widespread lack of financial preparation on the part of its members.
  • As a result, in the event of a protracted campaign, for both the short-term and long term success of the NBAPA, the players will have to demonstrate that they are able to comfortably weather missed paychecks and are able to generate revenue outside the NBA.
  • Also, racism.

Constituents, Allies, and Opponents

1. Who cares enough about this issue enough to join in or help the organization?

  • Arena workers, media members, team employees laid off during the lockout, municipal governments, and local businesses such as sports bars are all economically dependent on NBA games and as such want a quick resolution to the lockout. However, they have no stakes in how the deal works out for the players. However, the event of union decertification and an anti-trust lawsuit, or other legal action, perhaps it would be possible to make these constituencies co-parties on the suit and give them the opportunity to recoup lost wages if the lockout is ruled to be illegal?
  • Basketball fans also desperately want the lockout to end so they can enjoy the games, but similarly do not have a motivating interest to join the players’ cause. The strongest argument for convincing fans would be over “system issues”, making an argument that the most enjoyable basketball would take place if the system the players prefer were implemented. Sports fans have the potential for an enormous amount of power over the operations of a team or league — just ask soon-to-be-former Dodgers owner Frank McCourt — but have no organization, and all recent organized attempts at fan advocacy, like the Save Our Sonics campaign, have failed miserably.

2. Who are your opponents?

  • The 30 NBA team owners are the opponents. More specifically, “hard-line” owners such as Michael Jordan of the Bobcats, Dan Gilbert of the Cavs, Paul Allen of the Blazers, and Robert Sarver of the Suns seem to be driving negotiations to an extreme position for the owners, much like the Tea Party wing of the GOP did during last summer’s debt fiasco.
  • Team owners are pushing this new massive shift in the BRI split in order to make up for team and league net losses over the last few years. They want their sports teams to turn a yearly profit, despite the fact that worldwide, sports teams almost never generate a yearly profit and yet remain good safe investments, as their total valuation most often rises more than steadily enough to cover these losses.
  • Victory will cost different owners different things, depending on their market, financial position, and what sort of revenue sharing amongst owners ends up getting implemented. Some, like the Maloof brothers, may feel the need to relocate or sell their team, or both. Others, like Micky Arison or Jerry Buss, stand to lose nearly as much as the players, as their teams are profitable and currently very successful.
  • Owners, despite a general lack of unity of purpose, are organized very strongly around David Stern. They also possess ungodly financial resources and, also through Stern, have overwhelming media access.
  • To oppose this campaign, they can (and have) lock the players out and negotiate in bad faith.


1. Primary Target — Who has the power to give you what you want?

  • David Stern

(The note on the MWA worksheet is worth repeating here: A target is always a single person or group of people. It is never an institution or elected body. It is never “the general public”).

What power do you have over him?

  • Bargaining power through negotiations.
  • Financial leverage as the most desired basketball talent in the world, with the ability to take that talent elsewhere.


Tactics players have used…

  • Bargaining & negotiations
  • A viral social media campaign (Let Us Play). Stern may have superior coverage and savvy with mainstream media, but as Eric Freeman reminds me nearly every day, “at this point seemingly half the NBA is on Twitter”, and they have huge numbers of followers. This tactic is an attempt to improve negotiation positioning by telling a specific story: players were locked out of their jobs and, like the fans, want nothing more than the return of the NBA. However, they can’t do this with an unfair CBA in plac.
  • Some players — including at least one star — to play overseas, to demonstrate the possibility of other employment and show that NBA players can generate revenue elsewhere.
  • Massive, high-publicity charity games to keep players in the public eye and remind the public that basketball is still vital and interesting without the NBA. This is a soft threat of boycot — the idea being, the players truly could start their own league as an alternative to the NBA, if they so chose.
  • File a complaint to the NLRB accusing the league of organizing in bad faith. If this ruling comes back in favor of the players, the NLRB can issue an injunction declaring the lockout illegal, and the league will resume under the highly preferable (more on the NLRB in part 2)
  • Union decertification, or the threat thereof. By disbanding the union and filing an anti-trust lawsuit against the league, the players take the power out of Stern and the owners’ hands and make this a legal decision.

Tactics the NBAPA has not taken…

  • Creating an alternative American basketball league. Arguably, many of the NBAPA’s most vital labor victories stem from the threat of the ABA in the 1970’s stealing market share and marquee players away from the league. If the NBA stars were to all defect to another league permanently, the NBA would become a second-tier league overnight. However, players would not be able to receive anywhere near the type of salaries they receive from the NBA.
  • Specific targeting of certain hard-line owners and their outside business interests. This could be calling out Dan Gilbert on the role his Quicken Loans company played in the foreclosure crisis, or start a NBAPA boycott of Michael Jordan’s Jumpman brand and other associated holdings related to Jordan. This can emphasize the split between hardline and moderate owners, and empower the views of moderate owners in the court of public opinion and at the negotiating table.

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