The NHL lockout should be the death of the "pox on both their houses'' attitude about labor strife in sports. It should also ice the idea that salary caps are good, even essential, for a league.
The owners' stunt of last week, insisting on negotiating only with players and shutting out union leader Don Fehr, amounted to a tantrum. Significant concessions sat on the table, and management flipped it over. The NBA and NFL both locked out their players in 2011, but neither engaged in this level of self-destruction. The NHL is special in all the wrong ways. No other league has gone through three debilitating lockouts in 18 years, yet kept the same commissioner in office.
Appropriately, hockey fans seem less likely to blame the players or default to the weary neutrality of "it's just a fight between millionaires and billionaires.'' They have long targeted their wrath at Gary Bettman, who celebrated his 20th anniversary as commissioner this week, while the entire league lay dormant.
Only one sports league went tranquilly through its most recent labor negotiations experience, missing not a day of work. It was baseball, the one without a salary cap.
MLB players won their fight against a cap at enormous cost in 1994-95, and the game grew stronger. The owners, in principle, took a whupping and learned their lesson. They don't dare push their players association around.
The NHL gained a cap in 2005. The owners won that fight at the cost of an entire season. Now, the game has shut down again, only seven seasons later. Like indulged children on a sugar rush, the owners want more, more, more.
The refusal to negotiate with Fehr suggests that knee-capping the union fits their agenda more than putting on hockey games.
Refusing to see Fehr at the bargaining table was refusing to bargain. It might not seem all that unreasonable to someone who, for instance, thinks it's a good idea to go to court without a lawyer or buy a home while receiving advice only from people who benefit from driving the price as high as possible. Hockey players, knowing what they don't know, wisely decided against facing off alone against big-time businessmen.
The owners should take that reticence as an unexpected compliment. As a group, they have failed to convert a new TV contract, galloping revenue increases and their new salary cap into a functional league. If the players respect or fear this bunch at all, it must be in the way of a younger person with a wealthy, eccentric relative, humoring the elder to avoid getting written out of the will.
The NHL's singular problem is wealth distribution. It has a handful of truly swanky franchises, led by Toronto, the Rangers and Montreal, a large group of impoverished ones, and a middle class with a faint pulse. It, in short, has the economic profile of a banana republic.
In a capped sport, the resources of the privileged drive up the spending habits of the masses. In the post-salary cap era of the NFL, NBA and NHL, you'll never see a payroll disparity like the Yankees' $196 million payroll vs. the $50 million of fellow playoff participant Oakland.
The NHL owners started this fight wanting the percentage of total league revenues paid to the players slashed to 43, and both sides reportedly had agreed on 50 percent before the owners took their pucks and sticks and went home last week. It's not clear whether a 50 percent cut, plus a sweeter revenue-sharing pot, would rectify the wealth imbalance. Then again, it's not clear whether 43 percent would, either. Some of the people who run this league just might be able to turn an all-volunteer work force into a red-ink proposition.
In the end, the owners may win, even after last week's hissy fit, which should have united the players in mutual disgust. The utter pointlessness of their meltdown might be the reason they get away with it. That's how it works with toddlers. They start screaming in the mall, and an ice-cream cone materializes.
But soon enough, no matter how much they're given, it won't be enough.
The players enable every time they give in. The fans enable by refusing to take sides.
We hear it every time there's a sports labor dispute. "I'd play for free, and they won't do it for an average salary of $2.1 million instead of $2.4 million? Do they have any idea how the average person lives?''
The refrain has changed slightly over the years. The favored shaming method used to be comparing pro athletes' compensation to the pittance paid to teachers. But our economic race to the bottom has moved at a pace brisk enough to elbow teachers into the realm of the resented.
Is the hostility all due to the fact that teachers are paid with public funds? If so, lining up against owners on the dole would appear to be very much in order. The pursuit of tax revenue to bankroll stadiums or arenas never ends. Worse, it rarely fails. The NFL owners, during their lockout last year, had the gall to argue that players should sacrifice to help pay down debt on stadiums that will help the game thrive into the future. At no point did the owners say they'd share the capital gains associated with this growth or agree to pay tax rates on those gains that match the percentages taken from players' (and everyone else's) wages. That's beneath them. They are supposed to be tax recipients. In their worlds, liabilities are socialized and profits privatized. Heads the owners win, tails everyone else loses.
Oh well, if we said no to luxury-box subsidies, we'd probably just waste the money on biology teachers.
Or worse, we'd have to goad the public schools to teach basic finance. That could mean the end of the "I'd play for free'' silliness. Imagine if the average person realized that, having magically become well enough above average to play a professional sport, he would not perform at peak levels simply to enrich a bunch of suits. Why, for that matter, would anyone hone the aggression needed for hockey or football, only to turn submissive at contract time?
More to the point, how many average people have to accept the loss of freedom that athletes take for granted, as part of the deal for a dream career? A hockey player starting his adult life must go wherever the draft sends him. Imagine being a 20-year-old from Saskatoon and learning you're going to work the next seven years in Tampa. The NHL owners initially sought to extend the period before unrestricted free agency to 10 years.
The owners also want to restrict the lengths of individual contracts. The Kings' Kevin Westgarth addressed this idea intelligently in a recent New York Times interview:
Take Sidney Crosby. Ron Burkle signed him to a 12-year deal -- there's no argument that that's a great deal, because who wouldn't want to have Sid on their team for a long time? He's getting paid $12 million for the first eight years, and it drops off to about $3 million. The cap hit is about $8.7 million.
But if he had signed for five years, he'd have to get as much as he could for those five years. So all of a sudden instead of the cap hit being $8.7 million, the cap hit is $12 million.
That's $3.3 million that Pittsburgh can't give somebody else. In my estimation it's fairly obvious that these short contracts are going to result in a two-tiered system that looks something like the NBA, where you have three highly paid guys and everyone else is down by the minimum.
Hockey doesn't work that way. It takes 20, even 24 guys to win in this league. It's imperative, we think, that teams should be able to structure contracts with that in mind.
Note that Westgarth's point contains vast quantities of logic and considers the best interests of the sport, not just the players.
The introduction of a salary cap in 2005 is credited with saving the league, reducing an unsustainable 74 percent take by the players and creating more competitive balance. In the seven capped seasons, hockey has seen seven teams win it all and 12 teams reach the Stanley Cup Finals. The diversity appears impressive, but the sample size under the cap is small. In the seven years before the lockout that yielded the NHL's first salary cap, five franchises won the Cup and 10 went to the Finals. The difference doesn't amount to a dramatic transformation.
At the same time, uncapped baseball has not suffocated under the weight of the Yankees' payroll. For the first few years after the 1994-95 shutdown, they did dominate. But over the last 10 years, baseball has yielded more different champions (eight) than the rigidly capped NFL (seven) and two more than the NBA (six). The NFL saw 11 franchises represented in the Super Bowl; baseball 13 in the World Series and the NBA nine in its Finals. Bearing in mind that the NBA, NHL and NFL all allow more teams into the playoffs than baseball, we can't say that the championship round reflects a balance problem within MLB.
Countless efforts to correlate payroll with wins in MLB have shown what should be plain already: Profligacy doesn't lead to parades. The Phillies ranked 13th in MLB payroll in 2008, when they won the Series. Every year from then through 2011, they paid higher salaries, won more games in the regular season and dropped progressively lower in the postseason. Their Murderers' Row on the Mound didn't get them past the first round in 2011, or into the postseason this year.
If baseball had a salary cap, we'd have missed the thrill of watching the A's take the division from the Angels, whose free-agency spending binge yielded little compared to Mike Trout, fruit of their farm system.
Salary-cap advocates like to call low-budget successes such as the A's and Tampa Bay Rays outliers. But the goal of a salary cap, if it were really ideal, would be to create possibilities that can't exist in a free market. The flourishing of Oakland and Tampa says the possibility already exists.
Labor peace in baseball since 1995 suggests a lot more than that. Hockey has structural problems that can't be easily remedied. But how much should the players sacrifice to compensate for the NHL's drift away from its Northern roots toward sun-belt communities? The owners want them to sign a long-term deal, locking their fates into the dysfunction of today. If, as expected, the league finds move a team into Quebec City, where a new arena is going up, and shift another franchise toward the hockey-devout population of Ontario, the players should have the chance to benefit from the corrective measures.
If the players give in now, will the owners even do what's necessary to fix the NHL's geographic problems? The way they arranged revenue sharing suggests poor problem-solving skills. They made funds available to teams based on market size. The big-city clubs couldn't stick their hands out. Problem was, it didn't matter whether the big market belonged to one club (Toronto) or three (New York) or two (Southern California). The Ducks and Islanders dwell in the market equivalent of two-bedroom condos, but the NHL treated them as if they owned an entire building.
As ushers, concession workers and businesses around arenas struggle through the lockout, it is simple to blame both sides in the dispute. But the pox rightfully belongs to only one house. If the owners get everything they want now, they'll just crave more in the future.