Edge of Sports
NBA Players: Welcome to the 99 Percent
By Dave Zirin
November 18, 3011
If I were an NBA player, I'd be mighty confused right
now. I wouldn't be confused about why the entire
2011-12 season is now in jeopardy. I wouldn't be
confused about rejecting the ultimatums and "last,
final offers" of NBA Commissioner David Stern. Instead,
I'd be confused as hell by the media's reaction to my
union's collective and unanimous stand.
The 21st century athlete-particularly the twenty-first-
century African-American athlete-gets regularly blasted
for being a weak, watered-down shadow of their more
principled forebears and only caring about the money.
Entire books (see Shawn Powell's Souled Out) have been
written examining their ego-driven materialism and
absence of social conscience. Yet here are today's
players rejecting a deal from David Stern that would
have guaranteed them their entire current contracts if
they were only willing to sell out the ballers of the
future. All Kobe Bryant, who was due the biggest payday
of his career, would have had to do was raise his hand
in dissent. All NBPA President, Derek Fisher would have
had to do is blink. All Lebron/Wade/Bosh, the
supposedly selfish Miami Heat Big 3, would have had to
do was holler. Stern's offer would have been accepted
and they all would have been paid and paid well.
But after the players had given back $300 million in
revenues, the owners wanted more. They wanted the
freedom to limit the future compensation for the
sport's "middle class" role players and to be able to
send anyone on their roster to the National Basketball
Developmental League for up to five years while
dropping their salaries to $75,000 a year. The players,
without dissent, said no.
In this day and age, such action should be seen as
admirable. Supposedly selfish athletes are sacrificing
their own game-checks for the players of the future.
Instead, the media bile runneth over. JA Adande at ESPN
wrung his hands that the players just couldn't be more
greedy. Seriously. He wrote, "The biggest problem with
the NBA is that the principal players in this lockout
saga weren't selfish enough.. If the key figures had
been thinking of themselves and their legacies, we'd be
looking ahead to the Celtics playing the Heat this
week.. I still can't believe that after the players
made the huge sacrifice of $300 million a year by
dropping down to a 50 percent share of revenue, they
would balk at the thought of a few million dollars for
a few players."
Well believe it. Players actually stood together
against their economic self-interest. Say it was about
ego. Say it was about pride. Say it was about fairness.
But you can't say it was about the money. As NBA
veteran, Roger Mason, Jr. tweeted, "Fans talk of NBA
players being greedy. But what about the guys willing
to sacrifice their big pay day for what's fair and just
Absent a coherent narrative, a flailing punditocracy
has now resorted to crudely class-baiting the players
for being out of touch with "economic reality." Michael
Wilbon, perhaps the most read-and most paid-sports
columnist in America, wrote, "I'm tired of the debate,
tired of what seems like whining over billions of
dollars at a time when so many Americans are searching
frantically for a second job just to pay the rent..
They keep telling us how going from approximately $5.4
million (on average) to $5 million is draconian.when my
idea of `not fair' is when a 58-year-old single mom
with three children has her teacher's aide salary
slashed. Tell her about what's not fair."
First, I would like to meet the "58-year-old single mom
with three children [who has had] her teacher's aide
salary slashed" with whom Michael Wilbon is in regular
dialogue. Then, I'd like the entire varied punditocracy
to just admit the truth. The players stood up to a
group of the most powerful men in the country, and
these same men, through broadcast partnerships with
networks like ESPN or even direct employment, pay the
six- and seven-figure salaries of Wilbon and his
As Wilbon's longtime PTI partner, Tony Kornheiser said
when asked why he wouldn't critique Washington football
owner Dan Snyder's ugly lawsuit against the Washington
City Paper, "There are two companies that provide me
with the economic opportunity that I've had in recent
years, which has been very beneficial to me. And in the
words of my colleague Bomani Jones, I'm not gonna mess
around with where the money comes from, OK?"
(Kornheiser's daily radio show is on a network Snyder
owns. I also believe Bomani Jones deserves better than
to be lumped in with this idiocy.)
The players ARE "messing around with where the money
comes from" and the response by sports talkers has been
robotic in rejection as they bleat, "Does Not Compute!"
No one in these negotiations has been more clear-headed
in intent and less decipherable to the press during the
lockout than eleven-year vet and NBPA executive board
member Etan Thomas. I believe that the union-both
players and officials-on the whole has done a very poor
job getting the message out. But Thomas has been an
exception, regularly posting columns that have had the
same message: "No matter what you hear, we are united
and we will not sacrifice the future for the present."
Last week, Thomas who had been working in New York City
to get a deal done, took a time out to visit Zuccotti
Park and the Occupy Wall Street encampment.
Afterward he wrote very thoughtfully, "A few friends of
mine told me that although they appreciated my support
for the Occupy Wall Street movement, I would never be
considered as part of the 99 percent (they made the
distinction that I was more like the 5 percent). My
question is, if an Occupy the NBA were to happen, would
the players be lumped in with the 1 percent because of
million-dollar salaries? While the issues raised by the
Wall Street occupiers differ from the issues of this
lockout, aren't there obvious parallels in power
"Who is in the same position of power as the 1 percent
? Who wants a bailout for their own mismanagement
decisions? Who is more closely aligned with the
corporate interests from which the Wall Street
occupiers are looking to reclaim the country?"
Thomas, rather predictably, was slammed for daring to
even raise the issue that players, despite their
personal wealth, might have more in common with the 99
percent, no matter their bank accounts.
Ian Thomsen of Sports Illustrated wrote,"I could not
believe how out of touch [Thomas] was to view the
mission of his union as having anything at all in
common with the movement to Occupy Wall Street.[with]
people who are unable to feed their families, who have
lost their homes to foreclosure and who believe they
have been neglected by employers and government?"
I spoke to Thomas about this, and he sounded the same
bewildered note as Mason. "If you don't stand up for
yourself, the media is all over you. `You're no Bill
Russell.' But then you do, and it's `How dare you?' But
they can say what they want. We know what we're
Maybe they're fighting for a reason so basic, we've
missed it. Maybe it's because they overwhelmingly come
from the ranks of the working poor, have career lengths
of six years and have been facing off against the ranks
of true generational, aristocratic wealth in all it's
arrogance, personified by the snide, oozing
contemptuousness of David Stern. Maybe they're just
tired of being treated as less than men by the people
who write their checks.
Maybe they just hate to lose. NBA players: welcome to
the 99 percent.
[Dave Zirin is the author of "The John Carlos Story"
(Haymarket) and just made the new documentary "Not Just
a Game." Receive his column every week by emailing
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