MLS Labor Brinksmanship – How its like the Cuban Missile Crisis

In my day job I follow international negotiations on nuclear issues (ie US treaty talks with Russia, international talks with Iran and North Korea). So when the MLS players came out of talks collective bargaining and publicly complained about the owners, only to be followed by the MLS to make their public case, I immediately thought US-Iranian nuclear tango or even the Cuban missile crisis. The basic problem we face as the American soccer public is that this is brinksmanship and brinksmanship can easily go awry.

There has been a ton of quality stuff written about the labor talks. Currently, there is no new deal and the existing deal has not been extended. So currently we are in labor limbo. However, those relieved that the players didn’t immediately strike, should think again, Ives notes that the players wouldn’t strike until they have leverage – ie right before the season. In short, there is a brief window for both sides to pull back from the brink of nuclear war if you will.

Both sides are trying to show the other that they have the stones to push the button. There is a strategy behind brinksmanship, as it can convince the other side of ones willingness to walk away, thereby demonstrating negotiating redlines which can facilitate compromise. But this type of brinksmanship is very dangerous. Things can easily get out of control and lead to nuclear war – err, a strike. As distrust mounts, tensions rise, and previously idle threats becoming increasingly real there is a dangerous tendency for hotter heads prevail. The problem is that while both sides may understand the implications of a strike/lock out they get trapped in their own posturing and rhetoric.

The negotiation no longer becomes about striking the best deal in this particular negotiation, but about sending a broader message. In another words, the negotiation becomes more a battle of wills than about any particular issue. In that sense this negotiation is not really about free agency, it is about future negotiations – ie if we give in now, we look weak and the other side will only demand more or give less the next time around. Thus, the players and owners both believe that if they concede to the others demands, they will feel they will be weaker the next go around. The owners fret that their whole model – ie their whole way of life, if this were politics – were at stake in these negotiations. The players will feel that if they can’t get more now, they will forever be downtrodden. In this view, it is not as if there isn’t ground for a compromise, but each side is taking a bit harder line than they would if this was not going to be an on-going relationship.

For instance, the Cuban Missile Crisis was just as much about JFK and the US sending a message to the Soviets that they were not to be messed with in the future, as it was about not having nuclear weapons 90 miles off the coast of Miami. In other words, there was the view that if the Soviets were allowed to keep missiles in Cuba the Soviets would interpret the US as weak and would seek to press further and further. So not acting forcefully now, or so was the view, was equivalent to just kicking the can down the road, where you’ll have even less leverage. Hence, we were rumbling toward nuclear war, because neither side wanted to lose face.

So is there a way out? Of course there is. Kennedy made a face-saving deal to remove Jupiter missiles in Turkey, which allowed both sides to save face and claim victory. Something similar is needed here and is quite possible, but both sides have to realize that this outcome is not the end all and be all and that whatever the outcome of the talks, nuclear war just isn’t worth it. They need to find a way so both sides can claim victory and save face.

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One Response

  1. nice work dude, thanks for share…
    MLS Labor Brinksmanship – How its like the Cuban Missile Crisis Association Football

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