The NFL season began Thursday night after narrowly averting labor disaster. The NBA is mired in a lockout. Major League Baseball's collective bargaining agreement ends in December followed by the NHL next summer.
"It's been a perfect storm," said William Gould, the former National Labor Relations Board chairman. "Games matter to people, so obviously this has been a real minus for these sports."
And the NBA is on the clock. The start of the upcoming season will be in jeopardy if the league doesn't reach a labor deal soon.
"It seems like the sides are really far apart," said Bill Duffy, one of the NBA's power agents. "If they don't move quickly to close the gap, we might not have a full season. And if it goes on too much longer, this has the potential to really blow up."
Gould and Duffy were two of the speakers Thursday at Santa Clara University's Sports Law Symposium. The conference explored some of the hot-button issues in sport such as concussions, performance-enhancing drugs and the use of athlete images.
But labor strife was at the forefront in a week when NBA players and owners returned to the bargaining table.
"Nobody knows what's going to happen with basketball, but it's a good thing that both sides have decided to stop talking publicly," said Gould, a Stanford Law School professor emeritus. "When you hear lots of heated rhetoric, that's not a good thing."
The sporting public, of course, has grown weary of the billionaires-versus-millionaires fights that put the games at risk. Just when the NFL figured out how to divide a $10 billion-annual financial pie, the focus moved to the NBA's squabbling.
DeMaurice Smith, the head of the NFL Players Association who attended the symposium to talk about athlete health issues, just smiled when asked if he believed fans had gotten their fill of labor pain
"Sorry," Smith responded, "I'm not going there."
But the NBA is stuck "there."
NBA owners, who claim they were losing money under the expired deal, locked out the players on July 1 in the effort to extract financial concessions. The sides spent the summer posturing before they began talking again this week.
They're running out of time. Training camps are scheduled to open the first week of October and the regular season begins Nov. 1.
The sides met again Thursday for 5½ hours and have another session scheduled for Tuesday in a group that will include more owners and players. NBA commissioner David Stern characterized the state of negotiations as "getting to be an important time."
Players association president Derek Fisher, a former Warrior, warned earlier this week: "Until the deal is done, there's no deal."
Gould said the "weapon du jour" in labor wars has become the lockout, and the owners wield it before a season opens because that's when they have leverage.
"We saw it this summer with football and now with basketball because that's when players want to get back to work and start making their money," Gould said.
Yahoo Sports reported this week that Duffy -- whose stable of clients includes Steve Nash, Baron Davis and Yao Ming -- raised pointed questions about strategy at a union meeting last month, drawing the ire of players association vice president Maurice Evans.
Duffy said Thursday that he wants the players to demand that owners come up with their own revenue-sharing proposal before asking the players to help solve the financial problems of small-market teams.
"There's a huge division among the owners because teams like New York and Chicago that are printing money don't want to share with the others," Duffy said.
As the NBA continues to bargain, Gould said there might be one silver lining for fans.
"It seems unlikely that there will be a lockout in baseball at the end of this year," he said. But then Gould added: "On the other hand, we don't really know anything about hockey yet."
Contact Mark Emmons at 408-920-5745.