SI Vault
 
Locking Out Loyalty
Richard Hoffer
July 13, 1998
The NBA's labor squabbles could well squander fans' interest in the game
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
July 13, 1998

Locking Out Loyalty

The NBA's labor squabbles could well squander fans' interest in the game

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

Sports strikes kill me. Forget who's right or wrong (or even what they're about). Just the idea that the games stop so that some issue regarding labor or management can be advanced is a hoot. Do either players or owners think public opinion is massing over a sudden two-hour hole in our Sunday viewing schedule? Do they believe protest is forming because a night out amid mascots, blimps, Laker girls and Shaq might no longer be possible? Is the idea that somebody—we couldn't say who—will be brought to his knees because he won't be able to see Dennis Rodman's latest experiments with hair dye?

Strikes, or such stoppages as the NBA has promised us with last week's lockout, work best when the services or goods being withheld are necessary. Food and energy come to mind. Travel is important in this country, though workers tend to overestimate their role in delivering it. (Any of you air-traffic controllers feeling feisty?) In the case of mighty General Motors, for example, nobody but the principal parties is inconvenienced by the current strike. There are, after all, other nameplates.

But even in this sports-obsessed culture, where people seriously discuss the likes of World Cup soccer, it takes a mighty arrogance to think that the NBA freeze is going to produce anything more than free time. The NBA might lose next season over the Larry Bird exception? Interesting. Just let me click around the dial for a second. Arena football!

This is where sports always go wrong. The players and the owners come to believe they matter in some material way. They don't. Baseball made this mistake a couple of years ago, and it has taken this season's triple assault on a home run record to finally repair damage done by the stoppage.

Basketball matters even less. While commissioner David Stern and union president Patrick Ewing grapple over an economic system that seems obscene to most of us, they forget that the NBA has never been more than a cult phenomenon, occasionally riding the shoulders of some charismatic performer into wider consciousness. Its present success is mostly due to the luck of an unbroken lineage of hoops royalty—Doc begat Magic begat Michael—that could end at any time.

If sports has taught us anything about this free-agent life of ours, it's that loyalty is a fragile thing. If the players or owners wonder how fragile, they might check out all the Chevy guys at the Ford dealer, or they might drift over to a Hyundai showroom, where, if the lockout goes much past November, they'll be shopping soon enough.

1