Equal Time: How the Owners Blew It

Since I have repeatedly pointed out how badly I think the players are handling this whole CBA thing - and how shaky their position is (despite their bold public statements) - one might conclude that I place all the blame for this unfortunate affair squarely on them.

Au contraire, Pierre.

It's interesting to note though that every single writer who deals in the "inside information" genre (something which, sadly, we aren't going to be getting from FAKE SIGI any more, which is A PITY particularly when you compare the HIGH QUALITY of his stuff with guys like, say, Tommy Flanagan up in Toronto), including some people who virtually never write opinion pieces, have weighed in squarely on the players' side, sometimes with REALLY, REALLY EMBARASSING RESULTS.

(Why, it's almost as if they were pandering to the guys they depend on for their information. Nah, that couldn't be. In any case, nobody ever tells Dan or I anything, so you can trust us to say what we're actually thinking. "It may be really, really stupid, but at least it's honest" - that's our motto.)

Anyway, now that I'm done with my daily "Let's Make Some More Enemies" segment, here's the thing:

Both sides blew this deal years ago, and both sides deserve a heapin' helpin' of blame if MLS goes dark.

Back in the misty dawn of pre-history, when the teams were forming, there was a brief window of opportunity when the two sides could have established a mutually beneficial relationship based on the indisputable fact that they needed each other.

The players were all being rescued from outfits like North Jersey Imperials and jobs as Valve & Fitting sales reps, and MLS was clearly the opportunity of a lifetime.

The owners, knowing this, gave them pretty much nothing beyond a weekly paycheck and figured they were lucky to be getting it, which was of course true.

So for both sides it was a "take it or leave it" proposition, and the players took it, but it was a lousy deal, with no rights, virtually no benefits and a management philosophy straight out of the Heinrich Himmler School of Employee Relations.

At this point there was, perhaps, an opportunity for both sides to sit down and agree that a cooperative relationship was in everyone's best interests.

However, since the Unicorns and the Pixies were busy that week, the owners focused on the enormous sea of red ink they were swimming in and the players focused on the fact that they had no retirement plan, no insurance and no protections of any kind.

And as the atmosphere began to sniff of toxicity, along came the NFL Players Association with their own axe to grind: they were worried that this whole "Single Entity" idea had the potential to one day threaten their own princely lifestyles, and so they convinced their pauperly cousins in MLS that the best thing to do was to break the league in court.

So they generously offered to fund a massive lawsuit whose aim was to demolish the corporate structure that the owners had invested a couple hundred million dollars on when what the players really wanted was family health and dental and a few more bucks in the per deum envelope.

This was something like going after a chipmunk with a howitzer, and the results were about as ugly.

So the lawsuit was an abject failure, the NFL guys went back to shopping for beach houses and the MLS players ended up with a big old bag of nothing: no union, no benefits and a pissed off management that, on top of bleeding money keeping the league alive, had just dropped another few million bucks defending their company in court.

This was followed in short order by a bunch of the owners walking out, two teams being shut down, two men ending up owning nine of the ten teams and the promise that they would continue to keep MLS open for five more years but no longer unless things got better.

So naturally when the players, who had last been seen trying to get a bunch of lawyers to butt rape them, showed up in 2003 and said they now had a bright and shiny new union that wanted to talk about some things, the guys in charge didn't exactly break out their best scotch and take them home to do their sisters.

Of course as we all know, this eventually led to the CBA of 2005 which finally gave the players some stuff most people consider pretty basic: a minimum salary structure, some insurance, a 401k, etc. Not exactly a Goldman Sachs-caliber benefit package, but for the first time they had something like the usual stuff most everybody takes for granted these days.

So the players were now, finally, hap-hap-happy, right?

Not at all, and here's where it gets interesting:

When we get a little bit of what we think we were entitled to all along, it doesn't fill us with childlike glee. And in this case "it's about time" seems to have done little to stem the resentment which had built up over the previous nine years.

Resentment which was easily avoidable if the owners had been smarter about it all along.

It was always within their power to say "look, even though you don't have representation, there are some things that everybody expects to get from their employers and we're doing our level best to get them for you."

Instead, their attitude seems to have been "You sued us, you lost, so eat it".

In other words, the league neglected to do what was right in favor of what they could get away with. And the players know it.

Now the owners would probably respond that a league which isn't turning a profit can't play Santa Claus, and they're right. At the same time, people - employees, players, whatever you want to call them - have certain needs and expectations, and supplying them is part of the cost of doing business.

And trying to skate on those things - particularly when you know that, sooner or later, you're going to have to belly up to the bar - only causes resentment and, eventually, comes back to bite you in the butt.

(Just call me Dr. Metaphor)

What's more, being fair didn't have to cost a lot of money.

For example, the owners handed the union their best issue on a silver platter, that being the reserve clause giving teams control over waived players.

Any idiot can see how absurd that is, how grossly unfair, and for what? If the problem is that you don't want bidding wars (which would seem unlikely in the case of a player at least one team doesn't even want on their bench) then there are obvious ways around that, such as only allowing a player to negotiate with one team at a time. If you can agree on a deal, fine, if not, then you can go talk to someone else but you can't go back to the first guys.

Or how about setting up a fixed system of reimbursement: sign a player for $50,000, the originating team gets a fourth rounder; $50-100,000 gets you a third, over $100,000 gets you a second.

That's just off the top of my head. I'm sure there are much better ideas, but the point is that the league never did anything to eliminate an obvious, glaring inequity, which has contributed to the anger and resentment which the players feel, and for what?

How much did that really save?.

When you have the ability to eliminate unfairness at little or no cost and you don't do it just because no one can force you to, you're asking for trouble down the road. Whatever you gained short term isn't worth it.

Now granted the examples the union is tossing around aren't particularly germane: until someone can show us that there's another team even remotely interested in picking up Kevin Hartman at that price or until Steve Ralston says that he lied and in fact he didn't choose to go to St. Louis on his own, then they ought to stop trying to sell those tales.

Granted, the best example, Dante Washington, is several years old but it's so grotesque that it works just fine as a symbol of what is possible.

But the owners chose to let this policy stand and now they're being beaten over the head with it, and rightly so. For a bunch of supposedly smart guys, that was really stupid.

Same deal with reserve salaries. Regardless of how idiotic it is for a guy like Chris Tierny to be mewling about players making "$12,000 a year" the fact is that some salaries really were in that range for a few years and again, they provided a ton of fodder for bloggers, sportswriters, message board mavens and, of course, the players union.

How about you try something like sending these guys out to USL2 clubs? I've always said the problem isn't the pay level, the problem is that their locker is right next to David Beckhams'. If they're in Harrisburg, nobody gives a crap. Hell, pay them $7.50 an hour, you won't hear a word about it.

Instead, not only are they obviously, physically on the big team but they get playing time. You can call them "developmental" players all you want, but when you give Kyle Veris a uniform and have him start 20 games for Los Angeles and are still paying him less than your yard man makes then you're setting yourself up for a hit.

They could have voluntarily said that if you actually get into a league match then you get paid league minimum ($33,000) for that week. It wasn't going to break the bank, but it would have made them look generous and fair minded.

Instead, they whine about what kids in baseball's Carolina League make, ignoring the fact that none of them shower next to Derek Jeter.

The result is, as the kid told me when he walked out of the mandatory union presentation to the combine players: "these guys really hate MLS".

Whether that hate is strong enough that they'll shut the league down in the next few weeks or months remains to be seen, but the bottom line hre is that it didn't need to be that way.

A little openhanded fairness along the way would have taken the unions' best arguments away, leaving everyone to debate things like whether 4.8% over the next five years is a decent offer instead of whether the owners are unreasonable bastards.