Ed. note: This appeared in yesterday’s Piggies Weekly.
Hockey fans, particularly those of the NHL, have endured a lot over the years. Franchise relocation more frequently than the other major sports, dismissive to flat out derisive treatment by the vast majority of the sporting public, and most notably three work stoppages in less than 20 years. It is those injustices, both perceived and real, that have steeled the resolve of fans across the continent and around the world, even heading into what was viewed by all as yet another unavoidable labor dispute. But for all that grizzled determination and resignation to the fate, few could have imagined the absolute fucking stupidity surrounding this latest impasse.
In their last foray into pointless rhetoric in lieu of actual hockey, many understood the goals, if not particularly the means, of the League in gaining their famously dubbed “cost certainty”, particularly through the mechanism of the salary cap, which the NHLPA was so averse to. It led to the only work stoppage that has cost any major sports league an entire season, but the fans forgave and forgot, mostly due to the superior product that emerged once the league finally returned. But it’s that positive reinforcement that has further emboldened the league into shutting its doors this go around, taking for granted that the asses in those seats will return once more because they did last time. Only now it’s about mere percentage points rather than a paradigm shift, and to this point, the fans have not been as understanding, and justifiably so.
Exacerbating matters is that now across the table representing the union is Donald Fehr, who famously led Major League Baseball’s players association in cancelling the 1994 World Series due to their strike. For as cutthroat a motherfucker as Fehr is, it cannot be denied he’s good at his job. And in the early proceedings he was proving worth every penny, unequivocally dictating the public narrative and garnering support from fans everywhere, turning the public even further against the owners of the league they already distrust. But as this process has dragged on, Fehr, his cohorts, and his constituency are proving to be just as villainous, underhanded, and disingenuous as his opponents.
One of the primary reasons for the difference in how this lockout is being viewed from the most recent one (and how revolting and depressing is it that that phrase is even uttered?) has been the proliferation of social media since 2005. With no gag order on the 700-some-odd players in the NHLPA, this has led to countless individuals taking to the intertubes completely unfiltered and delivered to the masses instantaneously. On paper that seems like a great way to garner public support, but as the NFL and NBA players unions quickly learned, it can also go a long way in undermining their negotiating positions. And it’s shocking that someone as skilled as Fehr didn’t learn anything from these examples. More than seven hundred millionaires with 8th grade educations asking for sympathy 140 characters at a time hardly seems like a recipe for victory, particularly given the timeframe of being at the height of an election season when the bottom line for middle class households is the crux of 95% of the discourse.
What’s most galling, however, is the blatant lack of truth in the rhetoric the players are spinning. The common refrain after the league’s latest offer of a 50/50 revenue split and all present contracts honored with the difference being accounted for in increased escrow payments to be paid back over the life of the deal is that the players just want the deals that they signed. They want to be guaranteed to receive every cent stated on that piece of paper. But what makes that statement so infuriating and manipulative is that the players were never guaranteed every cent from those deals, due to escrow payments under the previous CBA- a CBA they spent 3 months of the summer lobbying to keep working under. Under that system, and any proposed new system, the cap is calculated off of projected revenues, which are always increasing, which leads to a higher cap, which leads to more money for the players. But because of that, a small percentage (8-10%) is withheld from each check and then repaid at fiscal year’s end, with interest, after the final revenues have been calculated so that the appropriate share can be met. That rate would be increased to approximately 12% to artificially lower the percentage of total revenues the players took, with the difference to be paid out over the life of a player’s contract. That’s just simply how it has to work without asking the players to possibly give salary back after the fact in the event of a shortfall if there were no escrow. Money can’t really be missed if it was never in-pocket, right? All told, under this system for the past eight years, the players were paid just a hair north of 97% of the total value of all contracts league wide.
So has it sunk in yet? The players are effectively asking for a backdoor raise while publicly being willing to lower the total percentage of revenue they’re entitled to, and screaming about the injustice the owners are trying to perpetrate on them. Their math simply does not add up. Furthermore, this asks anyone signing their first league contract and any subsequent contract henceforth to foot that bill with even higher escrow rates out of lowered salaries. Whether the players are willfully misleading the public or are just completely ignorant of how their paychecks work, neither is excusable. Especially when you have players like Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk with approximately $100 million dollar deals playing Spartacus to the media stating that they’re fighting for what’s right and won’t take a cent less than what it says on their current contract lest they walk away. But keep on thinking that players are fighting the good fight if you’d like.
The saddest part of all of this is the confounding lack of perspective from all parties involved, the fans included. While the two combative parties engage in their dick waving contest and lose the forest for the trees as the total revenues continue to diminish with every passing second, fans are quick to take sides and assess blame and futilely protest at every turn. The vast majority of the public ire has been directed at ownership, and most of it deserved, while ignoring the manipulation and hypocrisy from the players’ side. To anyone with a critical eye affixed on this situation, it’s clearly been a zero sum game from the start, with a present course set for mutually assured destruction. It begs the question if someone, anyone, on either side is grown up enough to break ranks to let sanity prevail. But given the laundry list of atrocities committed on either side of the table, holding one’s breath for such things isn’t recommended.