One of the worst-kept secrets in the sporting world is that the major leagues are in trouble. Billy Hunter, the Executive Director of the National Basketball Players Association, has let things get worse: he recently said that there will probably be a lockout in the NBA. This is old news to NFL fans who, back in February, heard their Players Association Executive Director say that on a scale of 1 to 10, the chance of a lockout was a 14.
We've seen what strikes do recently. The 2004-2005 National Hockey League season was lost to the dispute and there are many people who claim that was the end of hockey's chances of being a true member of the elite club of American sports. Basketball's had its share of semi-lockouts and no one's arguing that was good for the sport.
So what's the hold up? Why are the Player's Associations and the owners so far apart in their interests and desires that they'd let this happen? From the outside, it might look a lot like greed and it's hard to empathize with someone making 1 million or 2 less when they're still pulling down at least 10 million per season.
One of the basic problems with lockouts, then, is this idea that rich people like being rich and want to stay that way. Athletes are an extremely rare subset of people and want to be compensated as such. Owners, on the other hand, have spent most of their lives making a lot of money, and don't want those revenues to decrease at any time for any reason.
Obviously, both sides are going to have to do a lot of compromising. The simple facts are that the American economy is not in a great place right now and that sports contracts have gotten more than a little excessive. However, tossing around huge numbers like sporting contracts is also inherently problematic, because we just can't comprehend numbers this big. It's extremely easy to say, "Well, 1 million, 2 million, 3 million, let's just cut this and that," and it's much more difficult to truly put ourselves in the shoes of the people who are affected by these numbers. (This is, not coincidentally, the same problem the American budget faces.)
All this being said, there has to be a bottom line and it's got to be something like this: owners become owners because they had enough money to begin with. (Or they inherited the team. Even worse.) Players, on the other hand, become players because they are phenomenally talented. They have to be rewarded at a higher rate than the owners. These leagues are a business, yes, and they should be treated as one, but the players that make up the leagues are not simply widgets produced in a factory.
These are businesses unlike any other businesses in the world. They traffic in entertainment and human value, they market people as well as events, they combine show business with a warlike attitude that has become celebrated across America. If the owners bank on being able to survive until things are resolved, it's my bet that the resolution will be quite different than they expect.
Related Reading: Yahoo on the NFL lockout. ESPN on avoiding an NBA lockout.