Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

U of M educators study NHL impasse from differing perspective

Money morality

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The National Hockey League lockout, in the simplest of terms, is a fight between players and owners over revenue and how to split up a $3.3-billion pie.

But if you ask Arthur Schafer -- a professor and director of the University of Manitoba's Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics -- it is also a fascinating morality play.

"The 'millionaires versus billionaires' analogy is a catchy way of encapsulating it, but I don't think that's what it's about," began Schafer. "My sense is the dispute isn't primarily about money. I think it's about honour, a sense of fairness and respect and solidarity. It's a kind of morality play. That might sound absurd and pretentious, but that's how it seems to me.

"It's the bosses versus the workers. Now, it's true the workers aren't living in hovels with coal in their bath tub. But honour really matters, sometimes more than money. They want a sense that they are respected, not that they are nothing."

Looking for a different perspective on the lockout and a fresh voice after listening to Gary Bettman, Donald Fehr et al blather on for months, the Free Press asked two teachers at the U of M -- Schafer and Sean MacDonald, an instructor at the Asper School of Business -- to weigh in with their thoughts on the dispute.

Schafer is studying the lockout from an ethics perspective; MacDonald as an expert in bargaining and labour negotiations.

And neither is expecting a quick resolution.

"As an outsider who follows these things I'm really concerned this could be a very long labour-relations battle," said MacDonald. "There are just so many bad things in play. Whenever there are two sides bargaining there are a variety of tactics used. One of them that Don Fehr uses all the time is 'deadline hunting.' That means that you push the deadline to whatever the perceived threshold is and at that time the hope is the other side will significantly capitulate.

"But there's not a deadline yet. What we've had, instead, is this discussion where they're not even using the same framework. One is talking about revenue sharing, the other is talking about a diminished share of growth revenue.

"It's different languages and there's no urgency."

Now, Schafer openly admits he is on the players' side in the debate -- not because he is particularly in line with their bargaining position, but because he is sympathetic to their fight against ownership squeezing them for more. And his take was only further solidified recently when Detroit Red Wings Senior VP Jimmy Devellano referred to the owners as ranchers and the players as cattle.

"To me, that comment perfectly encapsulates a perspective that at least some of the owners share," Schafer said. "But the players are saying, 'We're not going to take it and we don't have to.' I'm rooting for the players, I have to be honest. I can understand their fight for a sense of fairness and why they might feel 'dissed.' The players may be very rich, but to me this is a morality play and I know who's wearing the white hats and who is wearing the black hats.

"One way of getting around this is having some sort of compulsory arbitration, final-offer selection or some other mechanism to avoid the emotional anguish experienced by fans who are being deprived of hockey. I think the players and maybe the owners, too, feel this.

"But does that mean the players can't stand up for themselves? Because in the end, unless they are willing to go on strike, then the owners will treat them as cattle."

MacDonald's theory is that until the NHL brand is significantly impacted, the two sides will hold firm with their positions. He used the recent NFL labour dispute with its officials as an example: negotiations were going nowhere until the recent Monday Night Football controversy that awarded the Seattle Seahawks a last-play game-winning TD against the Green Bay Packers. Then, with the league's brand damaged, bettors angry and the credibility of further games potentially compromised, a deal was quickly struck.

Asked if the cancellation of NHL regular-season games could be the lockout's pressure point -- its Monday-Night Football fiasco, so to speak -- MacDonald wasn't so sure even that would be enough of an impetus to get a deal done.

"I saw after the Seattle's win on Monday Night Football that there were 70,000 messages left at the NFL head office," said MacDonald. "Here's the point: when you do that, you damage the brand. Right now, there's no public outrage (in the NHL lockout) and if there's no public pressure there's no brand damage yet.

"The one thing I would say is if it gets to a point where there's public outrage and there's brand devaluation that's going to occur, then that's going to get the attention of the owners. But right now we're a long way from that. A long way.

"Look," added MacDonald, "they were out for a year in '04-05 and still made record revenues. Both sides know the public isn't going to have a great deal of influence.

"Gary Bettman is right: we are the greatest fans, we are going to come back. Any threats ring hollow for a long time into the future."

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @WFPEdTait

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 2, 2012 D1

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