Sunday, December 19, 2004

The Weasel

As I shake my head over the latest developments in the NHL labour dispute, events which are undoubtedly season-ending in nature, indeed, as I watch this sad beast lurch its way into the courts for the agonizing denouement of what should have ended months ago, my interest as a fan has turned into a blind rage of the business of sport. Here we have, between two sides of varying guilt, a war of no scruples, of no concern for grander consequences, and containing an increasing subtext as to the job security of certain league and union officials.

Due to the daunting public profile taken on by ghastly labour negotiations, owners are often wont to say things like: "The union has finally admitted our numbers are accurate, otherwise there's no way they'd offer a 24 per cent rollback on player salaries." That such a statement is a jewel-perfect example of a non sequitur makes not a whit of difference; what matters is its rhetorical heft to the neutral observer, and a specific observer at that. That observer is the National Labor Relations Board of the United States, and they will decide the outcome of this labour war. The league will drag this sorry mess into the courts, where they will attempt to win an impasse by proving that they negotiated in "good faith".

Meanwhile, casual hockey fans continue to find other targets for their entertainment dollar, and they are as good as gone. This dispute is not about the game, the fans, the prices of tickets and concessions, the merits of the shootout, or the lustre of Kerry Fraser's mane. This is a power struggle between two stubborn minds, and the NHL is bigger, badder, and has more to lose.

Frankly, the NHL is crazy. What other business demands that its workers prevent their bosses from overpaying them? What organization takes one side's sheaf of proposal papers, spits back a single-page reply, and then talks about good faith negotiations? I am stunned that the public sides with the owners, trusts their word over that of a bunch of guys from Flin Flon and Kelowna. Don't they remember Bruce McNall? Bill Wirtz? The Rigas family of Adelphia Corp.? Michel Aubut, the great screwer-over of Quebec City?

I am appalled at the "rational" rules of engagement employed by these broke-dick courtesans: the strategic pollution of dialogue, the concentrated PR efforts, the intentional cognitive dissonance regarding the crucial concession that one side must eventually make to end this dispute, and further dissonance about the nature of this concession. Semantics, potshots through the media, gratuitous attempts to placate the other side with "independent" financial audits, figures posing as arguments strewn across news tickers. They even had meetings and then disagreed over whether they were had. It's all there. We are watching a beloved institution commit, as Dick would say, bureaucracide. And after the Union's bold attempt last week, I can place the blame only at the feet of the man they call The Weasel. And I'm not talking about Bobby "The Brain" Heenan.

I think back to the footage I saw of Gary Bettman talking to a group of hockey entrepreneurs and businesspeople in Edmonton. He speaks fraternally among hockey royalty, as their equal, of systems and realities. The crowd, mostly entrepreneurs involved in hockey, sit at their round dinner tables, nodding in silence. He sits in front of the giant Edmonton Oilers logo on the wall, and waves wild hands about "issues facing our game". Bettman's hand gestures contain multitudes about the man. He pins the air with pinched fingers as if to throw a dart at an argument, flutters his eyelids in self-defence, shakes his head dismissively. He hammers home crooked facts with the gestures of a scoundrel, a nervous comfort to his body while his mind spins marvelolus webs of inaccuracy and deceit.

He is a Commisioner that only an owner could trust. Fan loyalty scatters across both sides of the owner/player chasm, but Bettman is universally despised. No media source on the continent has ever seen Bettman characterized as a man of strength, as a leader, or even as a "hockey guy". He's a courtroom guy, a man of mandates, a silver-tongue hired to soak up equity and keep it where his constituency says it ought to be. He's never seen the shimmer of the ice except under arena floodlights.

Do not suppose that the chasm between owners and players is about philosophy. It's not even about facts. No fact can solve this dispute. Whether the lights at Joe Louis get turned on this year will have nothing to do with what's best for the game. A luxury tax may well be a sufficient drag on salaries, who knows. It may even be that a luxury tax is better than a salary cap. But that doesn't matter either, because to Gary Bettman, a luxury tax is not equivalent to a salary cap. Not in structure, not in nomenclature, and most of all, not in pedigree. It's not good enough because Gary Bettman didn't propose it. What's more, the NFL and NBA have a cap, the NFL and NBA are successful, therefore the NHL should have a cap, and he's the man to bring it to you. The high-stakes lawyer, taking a position that may or may not be defensible, and defending it to the death.

Gary Bettman has, from a chamber behind giant oak doors on Sixth Avenue, promised his constituency a salary cap. Whether by coercion or by force, that's what he must deliver to keep his job and his reputation. Fortunately, the latter evaporated into the atmosphere long ago, and as for the former, let us be patient just a little longer.


Blogger Dick said...

On a whole, I believe I prefer 'the brain' to the weasel. Well said Professor Pants. I believe this is the best commentary I've read to date on the whole sorry affair.

10:00 PM  

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