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2012 NHL Lockout: How The Prisoner's Dilemma Applies To CBA Negotiations

The NHL and the NHLPA are in New York City this week in preparation of what everyone is assuming to be the impending lockout of the players by the league on Sept. 15, which is now just a few days away. At this point, there's no doubting the lockout is going to happen; there's just not enough time for the two sides to come to an agreement to avoid it.

The good news is that with nearly 300 players in NYC this week for meetings with the NHLPA, the two sides have actually decided to further discussions in anticipation of what is about to happen. The NHL and NHLPA have been meeting for most of the morning and are expected to continue to talk through the afternoon -- this is first round of formal talks between the two sides since Aug. 31 so it's difficult to gauge just how serious these negotiations can actually be.

What we do know is that both sides have had vastly different ideas of how they want to proceed moving forward. The NHL and NHLPA have yet to even find some common ground on which to build further negotiations, with both proposals being vastly different from the other and neither side wanting to be the first to back down. \

It's a battle between the good of the individual (players, owners) and the good for the collective (league as a whole); to help us understand exactly what's going on, we can look no further than an examination of the prisoner's dilemma.

For those that don't know, the prisoner's dilemma is an exercise that shows how two men (or two different sides) will refuse to cooperate if it does not appear in their best interest to do so. The story goes something like this:

Two prisoners are arrested and both face similar jail time, unless one turns on the other. They are both separated and do not know what decision the other side is making. The independent decision process leads most outcomes to where both Prisoner A and Prisoner B betray each other and while they avoid having the best outcome for themselves, they also avoid the best possible outcome had they stayed silent -- and followed the good of the collective.

Here's the basics of how it works.

Prisoner B stays silent (cooperates)
Prisoner B betrays (defects)
Prisoner A stays silent (cooperates) Each serves 1 month Prisoner A: 5 years
Prisoner B: goes free
Prisoner A betrays (defects) Prisoner A: goes free
Prisoner B: 5 years
Each serves 1 year

Now, how this ties into negotiations is not as straightforward but the principle is the same. The two sides, in place of the two prisoners, both understand that sticking with their own self-interests means the best possible outcome for themselves -- it's the selfish way of looking at how negotiations should turn out.

Both sides cooperating and coming to a compromise means that, while it may be the best outcome for the collective, the outcome is worse for the individual than if they had stuck with their guns and gotten the other side to cave the most.

This application happens all the time in politics, where the two sides would rather come to a complete stalemate than give up any of their individual rewards -- even if it is seen as good for the collective.

How does this apply to the current NHL negotiations? It's really simple.

This isn't about a difference in opinion of a certain key point, this is about a difference in the fundamental philosophies that the NHL and NHLPA possess on how the league should move forward. The compromise of both sides, a meeting in the middle as it were, would mean that both the NHL and NHLPA would have to make significant concessions of which it is clear they are not willing to make at this point. They are holding onto their individual outcomes -- which would be better for themselves -- rather than accepting the best possible outcome for the collective.

What we've found in the real life application of the prisoner's dilemma is that a true compromise will never be reached without some sort of outside influence. In the case of the NHL vs. the NHLPA, both sides have been fighting vehemently to get this "outside" influence to sway to their side; the media, the fans and who would be hurt most by games not being played during a lockout.

The question, of course, is which side is going to be willing to make the move to the true compromise first. If left on their own, both sides would stick with the option of not making any concessions whatsoever -- this leads to the worst overall outcome for the collective, in this case the threat of a poor business plan or too many concessions for the players -- while making a true compromise means both sides willing to give up a significant portion of their individual advantages for the greater good of the league overall.

This is the key here -- for the NHL and NHLPA to come to an agreement that is best for the league moving forward. While both sides have their own ideas about how the league should operate moving forward they desperately need to find the common ground that has so far eluded them.

Here's where it gets complicated, however.

This dilemma is being played out on a different level, not between the NHL and NHLPA. There is a fight between the owners over what is good for the individual teams and what is good for the league; there are a number of very profitable teams that want no part of revenue sharing and helping out the teams that are struggling. Their refusal to move towards an agreement of compromise that helps the overall collective more than the individual is what is really going to hurt this league moving forward.

So we have a similar battle being waged between the owners as well as between the NHLPA and the NHL. Judging by how steadfast the players have become in fighting against significant concessions if the league is willing to help itself out, this is where we find out if this is going to be a short delay to the season or a significantly lengthy one.