Restraint in Battle: David Stern's Pyrrhic Victory And The Art Of War

I can't think of union decertification without thinking of a passage from Sun Tzu's iconic text:

Maneuvering with an army is advantageous;

with an undisciplined multitude, most dangerous.


Sun Tzu via China Page

And it's particularly difficult to see how the courts would allow it when the NFL set the legal precedent on the basis of 'if it still walks, talks, and acts like a union...' Yet if this desperate gambit comes to fruition, the only other phrase that comes to mind is 'incredible mess.' But I'm here to view David Stern's leadership through the philosophical lens:

When you surround an army, leave an outlet free.

Do not press a desperate foe too hard.


Sun Tzu via China Page

A desperate man is to be feared. He has no hope and therefore nothing to lose. The NBPA is comprised of millionaires who have plenty to lose, but have been treated as anything but equals by a symbiotic partner who enjoy what is essentially a tactical invincibility which is not strategically insurmountable. This is utter foolishness. You don't step on the people you break bread with, even and especially a nine billion dollar loaf.

This is no war of annihilation, of course. The NBA requires its players, the players require the lifestyle to which they've become accustomed and of course the tax payers would like to see a return on the stadiums they've financed (somewhat beside the point, charmingly). David Stern only needs to break the players' morale to the point where they can lay down without feeling run over, yet the relentless press of the hard liners (which apparently includes Monumental Sports) threatens to turn this into a war of annihilation the extremists only think they can afford.

Winning through hearts is the best way

Winning through castles is the secondary way

Winning through domination is the worst way


Can't properly cite this quote...Google you fail me

There is a quality in mercy, a restraint in battle that is necessary when you need the good will of the conquered. And when one considers the need to reach a mutual accord in a negotiation to work together moving forward, the union-breaking pogrom seems even more illogical. These are short-sighted tactics used for maximum effect, more like theatrical flourish than genuine leadership.

There has been plenty of speculation surrounding David Stern's legacy and whther or not he is handing the torch to Adam Silver, rumors Stern handles the media but Silver handles the negotiations. Whether or not there's a new sheriff in town, the tone of owner-player-relations is going to darken and that means more than you might think. The new generation of superstars coming up in the league (Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, John Wall et al) had little reason to view the league with anything but mild benevolence, increasingly view their tactics with a jaundiced eye. These are the Kobe Bryants, Dwayne Wades and Kevin Garnetts of tomorrow.

It matters. These are a few of the big names who watched a generation of NBA players get taken to the cleaners for reasons we'll be arguing about until someone releases a definitive book on the 2011 NBA lockout. Durant is a max contract player who walks around with a backpack instead of a butler...that's an image so incongruously responsible it's no stretch for me to imagine he has started thinking negotiation strategy for the next deal. These players are humbler, smarter with their money and possibly more community-minded than their predecessors despite their 'limited intellectual capital' (that will never die). If they promote changes to the NBPA that make it more survivable in the face of adversity, the tactical superiority the league enjoyed and wielded like chunk of pig iron will have vanished.

I use the word 'adversity' on purpose...it has a way of shaping disparate individuals into meaningful social groups and the league may not even be finished vilifying itself, further polarizing their image. The players came into these negotiations prepared to make concessions, David Stern and Adam Silver grabbed them by the short hairs and started walking backwards, smiling and doubletalking to the media the whole way. You think world-class competitors are going to forget that?

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