Much like the Five Stages of Grief, NHL labor disputes engender their own range of emotions, and the past 48 hours have just about capped the spectrum for this incarnation of lockout strife. Fear, hope, impatience, anger, optimism, disappointment and resignation have all been featured, thanks to the almost incomprehensible theatrics the protagonists in this drama have chosen to stage. Everyone connected to the game has been touched, and many continue to be victimized. While a certain degree of gamesmanship associated with these events is to be expected, such parrying and misdirection is usually accompanied by substantive progress — or at least the appearance of progress — as to the subjects under negotiation. Showmanship is fine — when it can be directly tied to a cogent purpose — but bare displays of hubris are not only transparent to those observing from the sidelines, but undermine the one element that must be preserved in any negotiation — credibility. No matter how forcefully a position is advocated or opposed, nor how much scorn may be heaped upon one side or the other, the prospects for settlement with minimal damage remain viable, so long as each party believes that the other is dealing from a set of convictions, based upon a particular view of the facts, and that each side is aware of the respective strengths and weaknesses of their positions. From the public perspective, the perception of credibility is vital to the resumption of something akin to “business as normal” once hostilities are terminated. Unfortunately, Messrs. Fehr and Bettman are skating on some extremely thin ice in this regard, and seem to be blissfully ignorant of the potential consequences that further theatrics pose to their respective constituencies.
I’m not going to deal with the substance of the economic issues that form the core of the present dispute. I’ve covered those rather extensively in this article over at the Overtime section of THW, and, at the risk of shameless self-promotion, I commend it to you. So, the script and plot are not the subject of this piece, but rather the costumes, the scenery and the actors themselves — the lighting, glitz and adornments that have nothing to do with substance, but serve merely to create — or destroy — the illusions relied upon to convey a cogent story. Sometimes, form can overwhelm substance, and this is proving to be one of those times.
Does Anybody Really Know What Tme It Is?
Let’s start with the manner, timing and conduct of the negotiations themselves. Apparently, one of the key strategies adopted by each side is to make the other side believe that they really don’t care. This is accomplished by a number of unique strategies, such as starting negotiation sessions at 1:00 P.M., and terminating them an hour or two later. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that the one thing that has improved in the NHL/NHLPA dealings this time around is that the parties are at least talking with some form of regularity, unlike 2004-2005. However, neither side has made any credible appearance at being serious about negotiating a deal. If you’re serious, you show up in the room at 8:00 AM, roll up your sleeves, and keep the other side there until 8:00 P.M. — or later. Repeat each day until a deal is reached. Of course, when you have seven years advance notice that the contract is expiring, it’s also difficult to understand why serious negotiations did not start until eight weeks or so before the CBA terminated. Sure, I understand that Don Fehr was not officially on board until the spring, but this is not his first rodeo. This is one of the smaller deals Fehr has faced, and to suggest that he needed all of this ramp-up time before starting negotiations is . . . well . . . just not credible. The whole “We have nothing further to talk about” line is a tactical one, but one that is only effective once . . .maybe twice . . . in the course of a negotiation. Bettman and Fehr use it twice a day — and it is becoming the equivalent of The Boy Who Cried Wolf — nobody is buying it anymore.
Willing To Do What?
Closely related to this feigned disinterest is another line that has become a personal favorite, employed by each side: “We are ready and willing to negotiate.” What, precisely, does that mean? Apparently Bettman and Fehr have no clue. They have adopted this habit of presenting a visage of righteous indignation every time the opposition presents a position with which they do not agree , promptly followed by the “we are willing to negotiate” line. Uh, guys, do you understand what “negotiate” means? You negotiate issues as to which you disagree with the other side. If you agreed, there would be nothing to negotiate, would there? So, please don’t insult the intelligence of everyone watching this charade by your theatrical “outrage.” Donald Fehr harps on the mythical large dollars lost by “the players”. In reality, he is talking about the very few elite players who command the richest salaries in the NHL — the sector targeted by the salary cap. Gary Bettman expresses his outrage over how the “average salary” has doubled. In reality, he is talking about the lower echelons of the salary structure who have benefited greatly from the advent of the salary floor– a concept demanded by the owner population for which he serves as an $8 million per year mouthpiece. (He seems to have avoided impact from either the cap or the floor)
Read? Who Needs to Read?
The last 48 hours or so have crystallized the insincere nature of the dealing on both sides. First, the owners suddenly come “up” to the fabled 50/50 split of hockey related revenue, accompanied by a considerable amount of fanfare and public attention. While the PR aspects are undeniable, that does not alter the fact that it was a meaningful move from a substantive standpoint. The problem is that it came far too late. I personally don’t care what the motivation was for the owners’ original “offer”, which most have characterized as absurd, but the fact remains that the 50/50 offer needed to come far earlier. We have heard time and time again about how each party did not want to “bid against themselves”. That’s negotiate-speak for “It’s your turn.” To stand on such trite formalities in something this important is, at best, ingenuous, and at worst destructive to the entire process. This is not like 2004-05, where the very structure of the game needs to be changed. It is a matter of mere numbers, and negotiating numbers is the oldest form of negotiation in the books.
However tardy and inadequate the NHL proposal may have been, the NLHPA response was similarly juvenile, in many respects. Two of the three proposals were clearly non-starters, and the fact that Don Fehr conceded that he had not “run the numbers” on some aspects of the proposals destroyed any credibility. However, Fehr did hit the target with the third NHLPA proposal — go 50/50 from year one, but honor the existing contracts. This should have put Bettman in a box, as there is little rational defense to this suggestion. The owners he represents, knowing that the CBA was expiring, and also knowing that they would be presenting an inflammatory proposal to start things off on the wrong foot, nonetheless were falling all over themselves to ink players to massive contracts, in both amount and term, before the clock struck midnight and Gary Bettman turned into a pumpkin. While common sense would dictate that there should be little disagreement over honoring these deals, that did not dissuade the Commissioner. Upping the ante to almost absurd proportions, he summarily rejected all three proposals in a time frame that precluded any possibility that careful consideration — or even reading — had been accomplished, and effectively stated that this was the NHL’s “best offer.” Of course, the implication he was trying to make was that it was the NHL’s “last” offer. Sorry, Gary, that’s just not true.
To The Dungeon With Them
So, we face a huge gap in credibility on both sides. As this moves forward, the mythical “unity” of the owner contingent will evaporate. Why would the six teams that saw huge gains in both operating income and franchise value over the last CBA want to perpetuate this lockout? Why would the other 24 teams want to continue a lockout when everyone knows where the final outcome needs to be, and it can clearly get there in short order? For the players side, their hired gun — Donald Fehr — needs to stop pretending that he has $5 billion in national television contract money to play with. Uh, Don — do the words “Versus” and “NBC Sports Network” mean anything to you? To the union’s credit, at least they were willing to keep playing and negotiate. While that was not viable the last time around, due to the fundamental structural changes being sought — the numerical discrepancies at issue this time around would be very amenable to such a resolution, particularly considering how late the “in earnest” negotiations began. Both sides, however, have fallen victim to the lure of publicity. Negotiations never proceed faster when exposed to the light of day. In fact, there are few things that do benefit from publicity. Anybody think that the O.J. Simpson trial might have been a lot shorter, with a different result, if the attorneys and judge were not pandering for the cameras? Same principle here. Axe the press appearances.
Look, within a reasonable margin of error, we all know how this one is going to end up. Revenue will be 50/50, and adjustments will be made to insure that the cap does not rise faster than real revenue growth. Existing contracts will be honored, and a method for transitioning to the new structure will be found. Free agency will be a bit longer, contracts a bit shorter. And, all of this will happen sooner rather than later. (I’ll go out on a limb and project a 78 game season. So, stop the preening and posturing, lock yourselves in a room, and get the deal done guys. You’re not fooling anybody with your current antics, so you might as well do what you both know needs to be done. Oh, and one more thing –this time, put in some processes to insured we don’t go through this again. Establish a real “CBA Monitoring Committee” — with real power — comprised of representatives from both sides, which would meet as frequently as necessary to review and address issues that arise under the CBA, and lay the groundwork for the next agreement on a “rolling” basis. I know that would deprive both of you of the opportunity to demonstrate for the public eye how bombastic and sarcastic you can be, but somehow we’ll struggle by without that experience.