Carmelo Anthony And The NBA Players Association’s Messaging Problem

We’re just hours away from what David Stern’s gut has deemed the most important meeting in the 110 days since the league’s Collective Bargaining Agreement has expired and the official lockout began.

What makes Tuesday such a landmark date? Well, the owners and players will meet with a federal mediator to see if they can come to terms on a deal on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. Just how important this meeting is for the state of the 2011-12 NBA season can best be summed up in this one soundbite from Stern’s interview with Mike Francesa last week.

If we don’t make it on Tuesday,” Stern said, “my gut – this is not in my official capacity of cancelling game – by my gut is that we won’t be playing on Christmas Day.”

That’s a tough pill to swallow, not only from a fiscal standpoint, but the league will certainly take a major PR hit if no basketball is played on Christmas Day, especially when you consider the slate of games — Boston at New York, Miami at Dallas, in a 2011 NBA Finals rematch, and Chicago at Los Angeles – and the fact that the NBA is coming off a record-breaking Christmas Day matchup in 2010 where the Heat-Lakers game pulled in the highest ratings of any regular season NBA game since Christmas Day 2004.

It’s already becoming a nightmarish scenario for the NBA, after David Stern and the league cancelled the first two weeks of the 2011-12 season, but as we fail to see much light at the end of the tunnel, the general feelings toward the lockout can best be summed up simply: “It sucks.”

That’s neither the sentiment coming from Stern or voiced so succinctly by any NBA fans, though it does ring true for most, but those words were spoken by NBA superstar and 4-time NBA All-Star Carmelo Anthony of the New York Knicks.

“I feel your pain,” Anthony relayed to the media at an event in New York City on Friday.  “I’m there with you. I want to get a season going ASAP. In the meantime, I understand where the fans are coming from. It sucks. Especially coming into a highly anticipated season like this one. The ratings would have been sky high this year. Opening night would have been a wonderful night.”

Anthony, who was promoting the new Mission Athletic ‘Power Grip’ product, like so many of us, is looking forward to the Christmas Day slate of games. “Trust me, it was heartbreaking for me to hear [Stern’s comments], too,” Anthony said.  “New York-Boston on Christmas? How do you want to miss that? It’s tough. That’s one game that I have marked on my calendar.” A calendar that no longer includes a matchup against the Miami Heat on opening night as well as six other games, including a visit to Madison Square Garden from Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder.

No matter where you look, the general consensus online is that people are split on who to blame for the NBA lockout; Is it the millionaires (the players) or the billionaires (the owners)? This is a fight that the general public typically doesn’t want anything to do with, yet one would think the working class, which in this case is the players, would generate more favour with the non-billionaires among us. Meaning, you and me.


More and more, though, the online polls are starting to skew in favour of the owners, who have generously agreed to take a 50-50 Business Related Income (BRI) split. Take this poll, from the Los Angeles Times, for example. As of Monday, 45 per cent of respondents say they side with the owners, while 23 per cent of respondents say they side with the players. The remaining respondents, some 30 per cent, say, “Neither, just shut up and play.” Hardly a glowing endorsement for the players.

I had a chance to ask Anthony about the poll numbers, asking him more specifically if the players are doing a good job at getting their message across and asking him why that message has failed to resonate with fans.

“I don’t think we’re getting our message out there to be honest with you,” Anthony said.

“The owners are definitely doing a great job of getting their message out there,” he added. “They have David Stern, they have the owners who can go out there and talk and we only have Derek Fisher. At the end of the day we have one person going against the whole NBA — the owners, the commissioner.”

What it really seems to boil down to is the messaging. When you hear the commissioner say that the players don’t want to “meet in the middle” on a 50-50 split of BRI, the average fan probably has an instant reaction similar to, “Well that would seem fair to me.” Of course it would, if you were talking about an actual concession where the two sides met in the middle. In the last CBA, the players were owed 57 per cent of BRI to the owners’ 43 per cent. The players believe a fair concession would be 53-47. When you talk about the financials, the players would concede more than $100 million in givebacks per season.

I suppose, however, if you’re resigned to the idea that your “only voice” is Derek Fisher, you’re probably not going to be able to make the case for a 53-47 BRI split. Then again, when Fisher is your only voice, you fail to connect with the fans letting them know that this fight isn’t all about the BRI. What about the “hard salary cap” or the “mid-level exception” or reduction in the length of contracts or, heck, even playing overseas? What about those issues and, more importantly, what does the average fan know about where the players draw the line on those non-BRI-related issues?

“[The players] can all sit here, hold a press conference and give our point of view on the lockout and maybe the half of the fans who are on the owners’ side would not just jump on our side, jump on the bandwagon, but really understand where we’re coming from as the players,” Anthony explained.

Sure, maybe. It seems like it’d be worth a shot, no?

Life really is all about messaging. Quick: Have your taxes gone up or down over the last two years? It depends on who you ask. Is organic food really healthier for you? Again, it depends on who you ask.

You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who believes that NBA players are underpaid. As Warren Sapp once said to me, in regard to NFL players complaining about their contracts, “You’re playing a kids’ game, getting paid a king’s ransom. What are you b****ing about again? I missed it.” Point taken.

That’s a simple sentiment, though; one that most fans would probably turn to in siding with the owners against the players. You could never convince anyone not named Travis Outlaw that Travis Outlaw deserves $7 million per season over the next four years or that Jerome James earned a penny of his 5-year, $29-million contract. And there lies the PR problem for the players, as they fight for longer contracts and against a hard salary cap. Convince “us” that you deserve more, or in some cases don’t deserve less.

The argument made in the players favour is basic. Isn’t it true that you and I would have signed that $29 million contract if offered to us? We all would have signed it even it we didn’t deserve it, right?

Sure, no one with the right mind felt that James deserved anything close the contract he was offered. Yet, he was inked for nearly $30 million and deemed a thief for stealing a paycheck. Last I checked, though, it was Knicks owner James Dolan who hired Isiah Thomas, the man who signed both Jerome James and Eddy Curry, a $60-million bust in his own right, to long-term contracts.

Tom Ziller of SB Nation explores the many front-office mistakes made over the past two decades alone in his examination of the NBA lockout, so perfectly titled “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: An NBA Lockout Explainer (Of Sorts).”

On how we got here, there’s plenty of blame to go around on both side. There are more than enough concessions to be made, by both sides. It just only seems natural to me to say that both sides are at fault, yet for some reason the message from Stern and the owners seems to be resonating more with the fans. Is it because they agree with Stern that the players aren’t meeting the owners in the middle or is it because the players have yet to formulate an argument in their favour? I happen to believe it’s the latter. If you’re a PR executive you have to believe that you could easily sell the fans on the case for the millionaires against the billionaires, especially when the face of the millionaires could be the likes of Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and, yes, Carmelo Anthony. That’s would sound like a winning formula to me.

What do I know, really, but my advice for the players is to formulate a more reasoned and rational argument as to why they are standing strong against the owners. They absolutely should sit down and hold a press conference and try to reach not only the fans who side with the owners, as Anthony suggested, but with NBA fans who have already left the game, due to the lockout. Unfortunately, though, it seems like that’s not even an option. After all, what more can they do when they “only have Derek Fisher” speaking for them?

Just shut up, I guess?

Tom Lorenzo

By Tom Lorenzo Senior Editor
Tom co-hosts the Sunday Football recap show on Sirius/XM Fantasy Sports Radio. In 2009 he was a finalist for the FSWA’s Basketball Writer of the Year Award. You may contact Tom @ [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @RotoLorenzo

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