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The blame game in the NBA lockout

Who do you resent more? Spoiled, rich athletes or greedy, rich owners?

Your answer to that question probably reveals who you hold more responsible for endangering the 2011-12 NBA season.

On one hand, it's hard to imagine many people seeing the concerns of either group as actual, serious problems. NBA owners and players are trying to bridge an $800 million gap at a time in which many of their fans might not have $800 in the bank.

Yet despite the financial disconnect, fans do choose sides. I find it interesting that most of the poll results and a majority of the reader comments under ESPN.com stories seem to point the finger at the players for the current labor strife. (Many of the pundits, conversely, fault the owners.) When it comes to their lives, the vast majority of Americans seem to agree with billionaire Warren Buffett, who caused a stir late this summer in a New York Times editorial, saying the super-rich should be taxed more. Yet when it comes to professional sports, fans appear to support the super-rich owners over the rich-but-less-than-super-rich players.

Christine Romans, my colleague at CNN and host of the show "Your Bottom Line," says part of the reason for the difference is that "fans care about players, not owners."

"Athletes get both the adulation and the hatred," Romans said. "I think players are the point of contact for the fan, not the owner. To wit: fantasy leagues … hugely popular, driving growth in fans and the owners are irrelevant. Also, owners are seen -- rightly or wrongly -- as having made their money before owning the franchise."

I agree, especially with her last statement. There is this sense that owners "earned" their money and that players are "given" a contract.

Maybe it's because athletes play a game for a living and owners are seen as businessmen, or that being an athlete is something you're born with and being rich enough to own a team is something you have to work for. The number of fans who mock James Dolan Jr. for essentially riding his father's coattails into ownership of the Knicks and the Rangers pale in comparison to the fans who voice resentment toward athletes they deem to be overpaid.

This is particularly true in the NBA, maybe because there are so many moments in a game in which fans see an athlete standing around, or taking a play off.

Robert Thompson, a pop-culture critic and founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, warns against underestimating the love/hate component Romans talked about.

"It's like Snookie of 'Jersey Shore,'" he says. "A lot of people really dislike her. But that's also the reason why people tune in: They love to hate her. We sometimes love to hate athletes like the bad guy in a movie. We like complaining about the overpaid, spoiled athletes. But if we were only left with the polite, well-behaved ones, we wouldn't like it as much. It's the ongoing drama of the sport itself that we are drawn to as much as the playing."

To his point, a USA Today poll taken at the onset of the lockout showed that only 11 percent of responders exclusively blamed owners for it, while 31 percent put all of the blame on the players.

(Charles Barkley, meanwhile, blames the Miami Heat's big three, which is funny.)

A lot of what I've read is summed up by an ESPN.com commenter who goes by TigerTouchdown. In response to the news about the lockout taking effect, TigerTouchdown wrote, "The players make too much money and get into too much trouble, while the owners are losing money and having a difficult time marketing 'problem' players."

Juve 458, another ESPN.com commenter, essentially seconded that feeling when he joked on the same comments page, "If both the NBA and NFL remain locked out, which league will have a higher crime and arrest rate per capita?" Maybe that isn't all that funny on the heels of the Pistons' Ben Wallace being arrested last weekend for a DUI and carrying a concealed weapon. Wallace might miss the entire season (if there is one) as a result. It's hard enough to get fans to sympathize with you when you're seen as rich and spoiled, but then a criminal, too …

"I would think the players will be the ones in trouble with the fans if the season's canceled altogether because fans think they are lucky to be there in the first place and they should just be grateful," Thompson said.

Whether that's fair or not, that perception is an added burden the league will have to address. If fans are going to be ticked off and reject the NBA when it does restart, the negativity is going to hit the owners just the same. So it seems dangerous for the owners, in the long run, to frame their negotiating rhetoric to the media in terms of the players being spoiled.

If even part of the season is canceled, the owners will have to figure out how to get fans back into their arenas, after they gave them the reason to leave in the first place.

LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at lzgranderson@yahoo.com.

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