- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 24, 2011

Imagine a wide world of professional sports with only soccer and hockey.

It’s unlikely, but possible.

But don’t dip into your season-ticket stash just yet.

NFL fans are bracing for a possible lockout, NBA owners are getting advice from LeBron James and Major League Baseball is already gearing up for its Dec. 11 deadline.

And all collective-bargaining eyes are on Wisconsin, where union forces are marching on the capital.

What’s going on?

Union demands are shrinking post-recession coffers across the country.

Teachers and other public-sector unions want higher pay and increased benefits with fewer strings attached, and athletes want more money, too, even though they know that the number of zeroes in their salaries is inconceivable to teens who graduate from high school unable to distinguish the party of the first part from the party of the second part.

In Wisconsin, the governor has said the state can no longer afford to shoulder the high costs of collective-bargaining agreements, which spell out not only wages and hours, but also health care and professional-training benefits and safety standards.

We’ve acknowledged for decades that union demands can bankrupt a private firm. Now we’re coming to the realization that collective-bargaining agreements have strained our local, state and federal budgets as well.

Fiscal conservatives want to tighten the reins on spending, but tax-and-spenders can’t shake the habit.

There are no quick or easy fixes, but what Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is proposing is moving in the right direction toward protecting his state’s assets — just like the owners of sports teams.

As usual, supporters of workers’ rights are cloaking their protests under the umbrella of union busting. For them, whether a child gets readin’, writin’ or arithmetic takes a back seat to a teacher’s take-home pay.

This despite the fact that study after study after study has proved that whether it’s social studies, math or a simple book report, our children aren’t measuring up.

Is it solely the teachers’ fault?

Of course not. But the fact that the budget stalemate in Wisconsin has teachers themselves blatantly cutting school and taking students out of class to protest on their behalf is proof positive of the teachers’ No. 1 objective.

No matter what ultimately happens in Wisconsin, however, the sports industry already is peering through a cloudy crystal ball.

NFL owners and the players union have until 11:59 p.m. Thursday to overcome an impasse, which includes the owners’ intriguing proposition for an 18 regular-game season. Suffice it to say, things don’t look bright.

The NBA, meanwhile, with a June deadline, has James, king of the NBA’s court, attending its labor-talk sessions. (Disclaimer: Personally, I’m tired of NBA game coverage that focuses on the Los Angeles Lakers and whatever team James plays for. And no, I’m not a hater.)

As for the boys of summer, baseball owners and players won’t have to reach an agreement until long after the last pitch in the World Series, and that’s a long way off considering the first balls of the season have yet to be thrown.

But the chaos in Madison, Wis., is nonetheless in play.

Here’s the picture painted by Michael Weiner, executive director for the MLB players union, for ESPN: “In the short run, in other words what’s happening in Wisconsin, do I see it having an impact on the bargaining for the basic agreement that’s going to expire nine or 10 months from now? Probably not. But these kinds of developments have ongoing impacts in terms of the public perception and perhaps management perception of what the role of a union is. There is a potential negative there.”

In other words, let’s play ball — or not.

Deborah Simmons can be reached at [email protected]

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