In the very early hours of the morning last Saturday, the NBA finally reached a tentative collective bargaining agreement with its players to end a 149-day lockout and salvage most of what looked like a lost season just a few weeks ago. This lockout was caused by disagreements in basketball-related income (BRI) sharing and salary cap structure, among other issues. NFL players and team owners also tussled this summer in a lockout of their own, but managed to avoid losing regular season games by compromising on revenue-sharing financial issues similar to BRI.
As dysfunctional as these sports leagues seemed during both lockouts, they managed to solve their problems reasonably by having players and owners compromise on issues. Predictably, the general public started to look at Washington politicians and think: “If the sports people can get deals done, why can’t Congress get its act together?” Washington dysfunction has long been a cliché, especially regarding partisan bickering, but the past few years have taken the dysfunction to another level. The fact that political work in Washington is generally more important and urgent than anything sports leagues do only further indicts politicians when they are unable to pass useful legislation. Being furious at Washington is indeed fashionable right now. However, at least in a populist sense, the fighting between players and owners in the NBA and NFL is worse than the bickering in Washington.
Let’s think about what members of Congress are sent to do in Washington. When citizens elect a Congressman, they do so because they believe that person best represents their interests. Presumably, constituents want their representative to speak for those interests and, if necessary, fight hard for them. In a country as large and diverse as the United States, politicians represent a myriad of populations and ideas, which leads to inevitable discord when those politicians have to work together. And their constituencies often don’t help with this problem. If people were asked what they want from their representatives, they would probably say something about the representative standing up for his or her beliefs and expressing the views of the constituency. Even when potential consequences are dire, people nowadays usually want their representatives to stand firm.
For example, during the budget debates earlier this year, an NBC and Wall Street Journal poll found that 56 percent of self-identified Republicans wanted GOP leaders to stick to their positions, regardless of what would be needed for an agreement with Democrats. People generally aren’t looking for politicians that compromise (well, 68 percent of Democrats wanted to compromise during the budget debates, which could indicate that GOP intransigence is what blocked progress in those discussions… never mind, that’s another story) and that attitude leads directly to dysfunction in Washington when politicians carry out the wishes of their people. In some ways, Americans are getting what they ask for in Washington.
Now compare the situation in Washington with the NBA’s. Ask almost any NBA fan about what he or she hoped for during the lockout, and you’ll hear some variation of “I just want basketball this season.” Notice that most fans don’t care about what the deal looks like — the same cannot be said about the country’s budget. Of course, as is old news now, the players and owners squabbled this summer, and the arguments dragged on because they didn’t think about how everyone else would be affected by the lockout (fans, local businesses, restaurants, team employees, etc.). They were too busy thinking about themselves.
Some people might defend the players and owners with arguments about how the players’ union has the right to collectively bargain with the owners, which is certainly true. However, the intransigence displayed by both sides during the lockout shows that the NBA’s players and owners forgot the people who enable them to talk about splitting $4 billion (from 2010) in the first place — the fans. Without fan interest and love for the game of basketball, the league cannot survive. With fan interest, team owners and star players receive more fame and fortune than most of us will ever have.
In Washington, politicians usually don’t forget the people that elected them to their esteemed positions, which is exactly why gridlock exists in the halls of Congress. If you are mad at Congress and the NBA — which describes many Americans — be madder at the NBA. Its players and owners forgot about you.
Dar-Wei Chen can be reached at email@example.com.