Image via Sports Illustrated
I consume a lot of NBA related media. Podcasts, articles, TV. There’s not much I don’t take in, probably to the detriment of my personal and professional life – but I digress.
Amongst the overwhelming crush of NBA related media (which I’m aware I’m presently trying to contribute to – the irony!) it can be difficult to discern nuance. It has been said that while NFL is appointment viewing, the sporting equivalent of a feature film, the NBA being more frequent is like a television series. Given that it’s on virtually every day for 6-7 months, it is sensible to draw equivalence with the nightly news.
The Warriors plan to sign center Andrew Bogut for the rest of the season. (confirmed by ESPN, first reported by Yahoo Sports) pic.twitter.com/ADS9y1z6Hp— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) March 4, 2019
And just like with the nightly news, once upon a time at least, people settle in with a drink and their dinner and let the events of the day wash over them, their interest piquing only when something especially tragic or interesting occurs. With traditional network television nightly news, there are a variety of habitual phrases and language usage that is supposed to subtly signal certain things to the viewer. Not all of these things are deliberate or nefarious but rather learned patterns of speaking about certain topics that the viewer unconsciously codes in their own mind.
Over time then we simply don’t question the use of something as innocuous as the term ‘mainstream’. If I said ‘mainstream’ in relation to political thought, you’d have a pretty good idea of the types of political values that I’m referring to. Sure enough, there’s a way of looking at that term that superficially simply says mainstream = what the majority of people think. But we also know that the term is connoted with a positive inflection. Mainstream = safe and with the crowd, it equals protection and security – ‘I’m not weird, everyone agrees with this!’
On the flip side, any term that refers to something outside the mainstream connotes something unusual. Something radical or risky. By definition then anything that doesn’t fit neatly with the accepted consensus jars and we are conditioned to feel uncomfortable.
So What’s This Got to do With the NBA?
Well the point is this – how many times have you heard a contract referred to as ‘bad’. Do you ever stop to consider what that means? Who is it ‘bad’ for exactly?
Took a lot of unusual circumstances, but Presti turned (mostly) bad contracts into Paul George and Carmelo Anthony.— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) September 23, 2017
Superficially it means that the player is paid more than the consensus deems them to be worth. Players who for whatever reason were given a large contract and then through injury or form didn’t perform to the level that was expected or hoped.
But if we dig a little deeper we can unpack something more detrimental. The idea that the contract is ‘bad’ therefore imposes some sort of blame on the player. They become a point of ridicule. Players in this category become scapegoats for an entire team’s fortunes because they are either not adding value in terms of performance or their monetary value is hard to trade/move and this hamstrings executive’s ability to bring in other players that might make the team more successful or more flexible.
Calling the contract bad implies the player is bad and that word can end up meaning more than just ‘underperforming’. Bad encompasses a range of negative attributes that relate to the player’s athletic and personal attributes. God forbid a player who is deemed to be overpaid also espouses an opinion publicly that comes across as self-centered or flippant. That player will soon see themselves become a pariah.
So Why Does that Even Matter?
Well in this age of ‘player empowerment’ it is a genuine concern of mine that those empowered are actually only at the top of the economic food chain. LeBron is often said to have ushered in the era of player empowerment, normalizing shorter contracts and player movement that might once have been considered selfish or disloyal. But this new perspective is only afforded to the LeBron’s and Durant’s (and even these players deal with a certain type of backlash). In this sense, I would not even consider LeBron to be representative of players per se. LeBron is far more akin to an executive or team owner than he is to the average NBA player. So when LeBron wields his influence who is it really benefitting?
Take for example the recent debacle regarding the potential trade of Anthony Davis. LeBron James on social media and in interviews reiterated a common line from owners and executives – ‘this is a business’. Right, well to some extent. It’s a business for Magic Johnson. For Jeanie Buss, James Dolan, Gail Benson… for LeBron James. But what about the D League player earning 30k a year? I know players are well paid overall but most players are not building empires. Most players are praying they don’t blow out their knees so they can do the thing they’re good at for the longest amount of time. And how long does that last even if it goes well? Imagine coming out of school as an accountant and being told:
‘Look, you’re great at this, you balance books like a real pro – we’re going to pay you really well BUT even if it goes as well as we hope by the time you’re 30 you won’t be able to do this anymore – so have a back-up plan, but also give us 100% of everything you have in that 10 year time frame to the detriment of virtually everything else in your life. Oh and by the way if we get bored with you or think there’s a better accountant out there we might just fire you, or send you across the country. Oh and did I also mention that millions of people will scrutinise and talk about the way you do your job? But the money’s good so suck it up’.
This is why I bristle at the term ‘bad contract’ and as an extension why I think the term ‘player empowerment’ is misused. There’s not that much different in the NBA today than there was at any other time in this regard – the people with the money still call the shots. And it’s not simply that they call the shots – it’s that in most cases their wealth insulates them against legitimate consequences.
Let me dive into ‘player empowerment’ before coming back to contract language. The Lakers-Pelicans drama reflects a common technique employed by the powerful to engender subservience from the masses. ‘It’s a business’ – there’s a lot in this phrase. It reflects the notion that your personal well-being is irrelevant. I’m sorry we replaced your job at the stamping plant with a giant robot – but… it’s a business after all, and where would we be if the company didn’t make a billion dollars?’ Read: ‘I’m sorry I made public my desire to ship half this team across the country for AD – but it’s a business and your feelings don’t matter. Your life does not matter’. So who is really ‘empowered’ in this dynamic? I’m not sure that Kyle Kuzma feels terribly empowered right now or any other member of the team. What I want to know is how is it any different if LeBron lobbies to undermine your livelihood in preference of another player that if a team owner does it? To me, it’s no different at all. The things we call ‘player empowerment’ are just reflections of the way the powerful and moneyed interests that control the NBA have subsumed certain high profile players into their fold. If Goodyear Tyres in LeBron James hometown of Akron laid off 100 staff – would he dismiss that as ‘just business’. Perhaps he would, but I think that lacks compassion and understanding. I think it sounds a lot like the way very rich people talk when they want to justify a selfish act that is good for them but comes at the expense of others.
And so it is with the accepted notion of a ‘bad contract’. We utilize language that places blame and burden on the player themselves. Why don’t we re-direct the canon at the people who actually made the decision? I know we want our teams to win and so if we see a player not assisting in that cause we tend to respond negatively towards them. But the truth is we as fans have a lot more in common with the player’s busting their asses than the guys running the show. If we see a player getting 10 minutes a night and making 20 million a year I sincerely believe we should applaud. Good for them. Would we otherwise expect them to give that money back? ‘Sorry guys I haven’t lived up to this contract, have 10 million back’. I’m sure for many people this sounds pedantic, but it is meaningful. Dismissing the good fortune of NBA player as ‘bad’ in any way is to undermine their hard earned income. More than this it defers responsibility from the people who actually granted that fortune in the first place, if we object to the contract, object to the person who decided to offer it in the first place.
I propose a couple of things:
- Avoid calling any contract ‘bad’ – there are only big and small contracts and the players who have the big one’s deserve our admiration
- Turn our disappointment and anger towards the people making these calls – Chandler Parsons (sorry Chandler I needed an example) seems to be a much greater source of ridicule than Chris Wallace (12 years in the job and counting) or Robert Pera (8 years in the job with a net wealth of 7.2 billion) These are the people who face no consequence whatsoever but who are the ones making decisions that affect the fate of your team
- Think about who is really empowered in this NBA and what that means for most players. What does it really mean for the typical player/employee when anyone, star player or executive, refers to their job security as ‘just business’?