How Gary Bettman is (Still!) Trying to Control the Narrative

By Emma Harger

Times have certainly changed since the last NHL lockout obliterated the entire 2004-05 season. With what seems like the third lockout in commissioner Gary Bettman‘s tenure due to start at 11:59 p.m. Eastern on Sept. 15, though times have changed, he is still using power grabs and double-speak to attempt to control the narrative of the bargaining process.

Social media has exploded in growth since 2005–Twitter did not exist then and Facebook was still in its infancy, an invite-only private club for college students–and with its exponential growth comes the ability for players and fans to have an increased voice in the 2012 version of collective bargaining agreement talks.

As a result, fans are able to get more information about the nitty-gritty business side of hockey than ever before. The league cannot simply create a single narrative, trot it out and have it go fairly unquestioned as they did in 2004-05.

Someone forgot to tell Bettman that. He’s still attempting to control the narrative and bend public opinion his way, even though it is backfiring in a rather pronounced manner.

For example, it is purely illogical to claim that the league is in dire economic straits and paying players too much when they are also celebrating record profits and revenues are up 50 percent even in tough economic times. This is exactly what Bettman is doing. He’s even claiming that too much money is spent on jet fuel and massages. Of course, both items are crucial for players, who do spend a lot of time traveling and also need to have their muscles working at peak efficiency so they can play well and not ache. He’s also saying that the league pays players too much–how this is purely the fault of the players and their union, though, is never made clear.

He can claim that he wants to make a deal more than anything in the world, but with two lockouts under his belt, a potential hat trick forming and no apparent urge to negotiate a new CBA while also playing a normal, full-length season even though the NHL Players’ Association made it clear they would be willing to do just that, that claim rings hollow.

He can even say the league presented an offer that would be taken off the table on Sept. 15, then turn around and insist that offer is not a take it or leave it offer despite its expiration date. He’s absolutely set in his ways that he will not permit a season to start without a new CBA, even though no law mandates the immediate locking out of employees after the expiry of a CBA itself.

Bettman is also claiming that the Board of Governors held a unanimous vote, by a show of hands, in support of a lockout. However, NHL Bylaw 17.17 states that the Board of Governors and owners are banned from speaking out publicly about collective bargaining issues. Gagged by this bylaw, owners and governors could be aching to speak out, but they would face hefty fines, like when New York Rangers coach John Tortorella spoke out about refereeing last season. Plus, votes by a show of hands doesn’t seem like the most transparent, on-the-record way to conduct a vote.

Earlier in the negotiation process, it was reported that only four owners were really participating in discussions anyway. That means far more than half of the owners could very well be misinformed or left out simply because they apparently didn’t participate for whatever reason. Yes, not every player is participating in discussions either. The recently-reported figure of 275 showing for a meeting is about 28 percent of the league’s total player roster. That’s still more than 13 percent of a much smaller total of 30 participating.

On the other hand, Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly are free to speak out as much as they want to and Daly can even trash fans on Twitter by calling them uninformed.

In fact, the players themselves are most likely told that they can say certain things, but to hold their tongues otherwise. They may want to speak out as well, but they could be in trouble if they do, too. The NHL did implement a social media policy last season that mostly covered when players can tweet before games, but there’s no reason to think that it doesn’t extend to labor negotiations.

So, even in the face of increased criticism and new ways for people to express their criticism, Bettman is still able to craft a narrative for him to stand on–fans should brace themselves for more of the same from the ‘official’ line, but look for alternate sources, question everything from the main office and continue to give this issue the awareness it deserves. It’s easy to claim that nothing fans can do will stop a lockout, and it certainly does look like one is inevitable, but doing something at all is better than doing nothing at all.

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