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Friday, February 12, 2021

The NBA Tries to Figure Out How to Best Monetize the National Anthem

The NBA requires teams to play the National Anthem before each game, and the NBA requires team employees to stand respectfully while the National Anthem is played. These rules are not new. Over 20 years ago, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (formerly known as Chris Jackson) found those rules objectionable and he decided to remain in the locker room while the National Anthem was played. The NBA did not ban him, but the league suspended him without pay for one game before he and the league agreed to a compromise stipulating that Abdul-Rauf would stand with his eyes closed during the playing of the National Anthem. After fulfilling his part of the compromise for a few seasons, Abdul-Rauf ultimately pursued career options other than being an NBA player, though he did return to the NBA for the 2000-01 season.

During the COVID-19 "bubble" last season, the league permitted players and team employees to kneel during the National Anthem, but that was more about granting some leeway during unusual circumstances than actually changing the rules. This season, everything was supposed to return to normal. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban apparently did not get that memo. His team did not play the National Anthem before home games this season, and this supposedly went unnoticed by the league until Cuban made some public statements drawing attention to how he flouted the league's rules, whereupon the league informed him that the rules have not been changed. The Mavericks have resumed playing the National Anthem prior to games, with some commentators praising Cuban's initial actions and other commentators praising the league for enforcing its longstanding rules.

It is difficult to believe that the NBA did not know about Cuban's National Anthem policy until he publicly spoke about it. No, the league was willing to let things go if no one complained--but as soon as this became a public issue, the NBA did some back of the envelope math and figured out that the NBA's declining ratings would decline further if other teams followed Cuban's example. So, Cuban issued some weak statement about his new policy not really being a policy but rather just some kind of experiment, the NBA stated that its rules had not been changed, and everything has returned to normal.

The NBA's hypocrisy would be laughable were it not so self-righteous and absurd. The league breaks its collective arms patting itself on the back for being progressive: "The NBA Cares," we have been told ad nauseam. 

What a farce. The NBA cares primarily about profits. If the NBA thought that it could make more money by having someone read excerpts from The Communist Manifesto before each game then the NBA would do it in a heartbeat; if the NBA thought that paying customers did not care about the National Anthem then the NBA would drop the National Anthem in a heartbeat.

For now, playing the National Anthem is a better financial decision than not playing the National Anthem. 

There is no principle at work here other than maximizing profits. There is nothing inherently wrong with maximizing profits--provided that no laws are broken and no people are harmed--but it is obnoxious when a multi-billion dollar business repeatedly makes money-centered decisions while at the same time touting how progressive it is.

The NBA does not care about genocide in China, because doing business with China is a significant revenue source that the NBA is determined to maintain and grow.

The NBA does not care about the health and safety of its players, as demonstrated last week with the ludicrous scene of Kevin Durant being told that he could not play, then being permitted to play, and then being told that he could not play and that he would have to isolate for a week. If he has to isolate due to contact tracing and "an abundance of caution" then why doesn't every player--every NBA employee-who came in contact with him also have to isolate? Follow the money: if the NBA did that, then the season would collapse, and the league would lose hundreds of millions--if not billions--of dollars. So, instead we have a charade that is less about health and safety, and much more about acting like the league cares about health and safety. 

The NBA dragged its feet for decades while players who retired prior to 1965 struggled in their old age without having an NBA pension. After many of those players passed away, the NBA finally threw a small amount of cash to the survivors. The ABA-NBA merger stipulated that the combined league would honor the pensions of ABA players, but the NBA is apparently waiting for a few more of those guys to pass away before helping out the survivors. The total amount of money that it would take to help the remaining ABA players who do not have pensions has been estimated at less than $2 million. That is pocket change for the NBA. The NBA loudly proclaims "Black Lives Matter" but is unwilling to commit even a relatively small amount of money to help the players--most of whom are Black--who helped build the league into the multi-billion dollar business it is today. 

Commissioner Adam Silver gets a lot of credit for how he dealt with racist owner Donald Sterling. Sterling was a racist owner for decades, but the league never did anything until it was clear that Sterling's racism had become a public scandal that could cost the league money (and possibly lead to a player boycott). 

A 43 page report detailed an institutional culture of sexual harassment that lasted for over 20 years in the Dallas Mavericks' organization. Cuban was not directly implicated in any improper conduct, but the report stated that "significant errors in judgment" and "institutional failures" had happened on his watch. Cuban and the Mavericks received no discipline from the NBA. Media members who cover the NBA regularly praise Cuban for being a progressive and innovative thinker. Remember all of this the next time you hear about how much the NBA is doing to empower women and girls.

The NBA should be ashamed of all of this, but as long as the cash keeps coming in the league's attitude is, in the vernacular, "Money talks and BS walks." Murdered people in China, destitute basketball pioneers, a racist owner, female employees enduring sexual harassment while Cuban looked the other way--it is all BS to the NBA.

Do not take this to mean that other leagues are better. MLB is a joke, and I have written about that before; it is ridiculous that Bud Selig is in the Baseball Hall of Fame, and that the PED cheater Alex Rodriguez is a celebrated baseball commentator. The NFL, like the NBA, has also not done right for many of its retired players, and the league is trying to figure out how much crowd-pleasing violence it can get away with allowing while giving lip service to being concerned about brain injuries. How many NFL Hall of Famers have died as a result of brain injuries? How many ex-NFL players have ended up homeless due at least in part to their brain injuries severely impacting their ability to function? How many ex-NFL players have committed suicide by shooting themselves in the torso so that their brains can be preserved for study?

I know more about the NBA than I do about the other leagues, and I have covered the NBA in person, so it is only natural that I write more about the NBA both in terms of the greatness of its athletes and the hypocrisy of its organizational policies.

The National Anthem "controversy" stems in part from non-lawyers and non-scholars struggling to understand what the Constitutional right to free speech entails. The right to free speech means that the government cannot restrict your right to free speech; the right to free speech does not mean that you can say whatever you want whenever and wherever you want without facing any consequences. A private employer has the legal right to restrict its employees' speech in many ways: it can contractually prevent employees from revealing proprietary information, it can determine what employees may or may not do with company-owned computers/internet access, and so forth, provided that such restrictions are spelled out as terms of employment and do not violate federal or state laws. Thus, the NBA can set as a condition of employment that its teams play the National Anthem prior to each game, and that each team employee shall stand respectfully while the National Anthem is played. Anyone who does not accept that condition of employment is subject to discipline, up to and possibly including termination of employment. 

The United States' history and flaws are well-documented, and seemingly discussed in the media on a daily basis now. There is a tendency to forget that this country was founded by people who fled tyranny, and that this country's significant efforts in World War I and World War II (to cite just two examples) did much to preserve and extend freedom around the world. This country, for all of its shortcomings, is a place where a person who has no college education can accumulate generational wealth--tens of millions or even hundreds of millions of dollars--on the basis of athletic skill. Anyone who does not want to stand for the National Anthem has plenty of other employment options: there are basketball leagues all over the world that do not play the U.S.National Anthem before their games, and players have the opportunity to offer their services to the highest bidder in any of those leagues.

I am not deeply offended by people who kneel for the National Anthem, but I am puzzled by what they think they are accomplishing. The National Anthem is not the Confederate flag; it is not a symbol of oppression, unless you believe that this country is fundamentally evil. I believe that this country has done wrong and must do better, but that this country is also, in President Abraham Lincoln's heartfelt, eloquent words, "the last best hope of Earth." I believe that there are other, better ways to protest injustice, and/or call attention to specific situations than not standing for the National Anthem. The playing of the National Anthem is a moment when all of us can stand together in gratitude for what this country has accomplished, and in hope for what this country will accomplish in terms of righting past wrongs/doing better in the future.

Although I stand for the National Anthem, I can respect someone who peacefully decides to kneel--but only if that person is also willing to accept the potential consequences of that action. If the National Anthem is that offensive to one's ears, then the political and economic systems that enable the NBA to exist and thrive are also offensive. 

It really is simple. The NBA, as a private employer, has a right to play the National Anthem before games with the expectation that its employees will stand respectfully while the National Anthem is played. Each person has a right to decide what terms of employment are acceptable financially, morally, and otherwise--and each person has a right to decide to seek employment from an employer whose rules and policies align with behaviors that are are palatable to that person.

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:00 PM



At Monday, February 15, 2021 3:19:00 PM, Blogger Tristan Seok said...

Love your blog and writing. I read it all the time and for many years now! Keep up the good work!

At Monday, February 15, 2021 3:40:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Thank you!


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