If the NBA, steadily plodding forward, is the tortoise in the race to restart sports, MLB is the hare, zigzagging across the road.
On Thursday, the NBA approved a competitive format to restart the season, during a contentious week for MLB negotiations. According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the National Basketball Players Association’s team player representatives have a conference call scheduled for Friday to approve the proposal. There are more details to hammer out between the league and its players union for a comprehensive resumption plan. But for now, it seems the tortoise is gaining on the hare.
Compare the NBA’s progress to the baseball news this week: In response to the owners’ 82-game proposal that included pay cuts on a sliding scale, the players countered with a 114-game plan without additional pay cuts.
Then, the owners reportedly turned their attentions to the March agreement, which they reportedly believe gives commissioner Rob Manfred the power to set the 2020 schedule if the two sides can’t reach an agreement. The threat of a 50-game season went on full display in the media.
That move – the owners using Manfred as leverage – reveals an important distinction between the roles of the commissioners in return-to-play negotiations.
There are several reasons that negotiations have gone so differently for MLB and the NBA, including how much of the season had been played before the coronavirus shutdown, and the leagues’ unique structures and histories. Those are important. But the relationships Manfred and NBA commissioner Adams Silver have built with the players in their respective leagues have also played a significant role.
Silver, while by no means perfect, has been the commissioner of the NBA’s player empowerment era. He set the tone less than three months into the job, when he banned former Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life from any association with the Clippers or NBA. Audio of Sterling making racist remarks to his girlfriend had recently surfaced.
Manfred, on the other hand, has overseen a flattening of player salaries over the past five years, despite revenue growth. He also received criticism from several players during Spring Training for his handling of the Astros sign-stealing scandal.
So, it’s no surprise that Silver was the commissioner who sought consultation from players throughout the process of drafting a return-to-play proposal.
“In this way,” ESPN’s Brian Windhorst wrote this week, “the union has, in some respects, voted along the way.”
If the dramatic clash between MLB and its players association is any indication, the same was not true in baseball.
Three weeks ago, Manfred held a conference call with MLB owners to approve a return-to-play proposal. Since then, negotiations have covered a wide range of topics: health and safety, length of season, player salaries, deferrals. The union described the league’s first economic proposal as “extremely disappointing.” MLB rejected the players’ 114-game plan.
The NBA Board of Governors’ vote wasn’t held until Thursday. But at least this week, NBA’s view of the finish line appeared clearer than MLB’s.