Matt Calkins: Commissioner earns 50-50 split of blame

Commentary: Matt Calkins




He spoke of the “enormous payday” the league was offering, highlighted the continuance of guaranteed contracts, and emphasized an increased average salary for the players. But NBA commissioner David Stern failed to realize that dollar values can’t negate months worth of bullying.

Sorry, Commish. The saying doesn’t go — “You get more bees with money.”

For decades, the most accomplished athletes have asserted that their disdain for losing serves as their primary motivation. So why would Stern, a man who has overseen a league of the finest sportsmen in the world for 17 years, think that such a principle wouldn’t apply to a labor dispute?

Yes, the players probably should have accepted the league’s most recent proposal, or at least avoided disclaiming and filing an antitrust suit. Instead, they have nuked their once widespread public sympathy, will require a defibrillator to salvage the season, and likely injured the future generations they were so publicly intent on helping.

But you have to remember that these negotiations involve some of the country’s biggest egos — and throughout the talks, Stern has been stroking them with sandpaper.

In an interview with ESPN Monday, the commissioner came off like the soul mate of Cinderella’s stepmother. He was dismissive. He was condescending. Even Donald Trump winced at his arrogance.

Wearing an everyone-but-me-is-a-moron grin, Stern said the union’s decision to disclaim was made “in its infinite wisdom,” that players were “obviously hopped up” on Billy Hunter’s sales pitch, that the course of events “just get stranger and stranger” and that everyone on the opposition was “hell-bent on self-destruction.”

And this came on top of his ultimatum from last week, in which he insisted that the union accept a deal offering 50 percent of the NBA’s basketball-related income or face a 3 percent decrease. It was like a father threatening to take the car away unless his daughter dumped her boyfriend.

So the players did what any angry teenager would — they rebelled.

Not accepting this deal very well may have been the equivalent of an adolescent turning to drugs just to hurt their parents. Sure, it may be self-destructive, but anything to avoid giving in, right?

In sports, satiating an ego is every bit as important as filling up a bank account. Just look at Darrelle Revis or Michael Crabtree or Chris Johnson in the NFL. None of them cared exactly what his salary was, just that it was more than that other guy. It is not beyond the imagination to think that the union would be happier with a deal in which they got less money but feel they won the dispute, versus one in which they got more but feel they were backed into a corner.

As a Columbia Law School grad, Stern should know that a defendant with a likable attorney stands a better chance of winning, just as a traffic violator can avoid a ticket by showing respect to the officer.

Look, high-profile sports is a rough business, but Stern has no business being this rough. As Roger Sterling once said in “Mad Men,” a show about the cutthroat world of advertising, “Do you know many times it all comes down to ‘I don’t like that guy?’ ”

Respect, not hostility, is the art of persuasion’s paint brush. Do a search for “idiot” in the Gettysburg Address or “I Have a Dream,” speech and you won’t have much luck.

Clearly, Stern thinks the players deserve all of the blame for this fiasco. Truth is, Mr. Commissioner — you finally got your 50-50 split.

Matt Calkins covers the Trail Blazers for The Columbian. He can be contacted at 360-735-4528 or