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Tennis officials fined Serena Williams $2,000 for lashing out (verbally) at a chair umpire during her loss in the US Open final to Samantha Stosur. I applaud the US Open officials for showing greater restraint than Williams. While I’m sure we’ll see the usual round of fabricated media outrage over the “low” fine, the truth is this was a minor incident (that was hardly unusual in the context of professional tennis) that didn’t warrant any great public show of retribution. Unfortunately, other sports leagues and governing bodies rarely exercise such discretion.Indeed, on the same day the Williams fine came down, the NBA fined Charlotte Bobcats owner Michael Jordan $100,000 for talking about the ongoing NBA lockout without permission from Commissioner David Stern. Jordan’s comments were innocuous; he did little more than repeat the company line to an Australian newspaper. He also said some nice things about a player who wasn’t on his roster. It’s odd to think the NBA would punish Jordan for being complementary towards a player — something which Jordan isn’t exactly famous for. It’s even odder to wonder why the NBA turned on a non-story — most of us would never have seen Jordan’s comments had Stern not imposed a fine — into a story.
Punishment is often justified on deterrence grounds: By fining so-an-so today, it discourages him and others from committing a similar transgression in the future. This is generally bunk. Punishment is usually about the punisher, not the punishee. It’s an exercise in making the punisher feel important. This is why the level of fines and penalties tend to increase over time.
Years ago, I attended a panel discussion with the lawyer then running the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division. He was gushing that his office continued to collect record fines — at that time, about $500 million annually — from defendants in “price fixing” cases. Another lawyer in the room, an experienced antitrust practitioner himself, asked then how could the fines be deterring “price fixing” if the levels kept rising. The Division chief tried to cover his tracks and said that while the level of punishment kept rising, the amount of “undetected” antitrust violations were decreasing. In other words, he argued that his fines deterred conduct he couldn’t actually see. I don’t think anyone in the room bought this.
Government agencies usually fine as a backdoor method of taxation. I doubt the NBA or NFL fine people for the money. Sports commissioners are simply on personal power trips. They need to constantly reaffirm their own dubious value to the sports culture. I’ve long argued that commissioners, in all sports, are unnecessary at best and hindrances at worst. In no other industry can an employee punish his employers for speaking about the businesses they own. For that matter, few if any businesses allow CEOs to withhold part of their employees’ salaries on dubious grounds like “protecting the integrity of the league.”
As noted above, fines also take minor incidents and turn them into major ones. Most corporate executives strive to avoid this. You don’t publicly discipline employees (or shareholders) in an attempt to minimize bad public relations. This is why Roger Goodell’s behaviour has always baffled me. He consistently lengthens the media cycle for scandals by imposing arbitrary and capricious fines and suspensions. Just look at the Terrelle Pryor and Jim Tressel punishments. Their presence in the league would have been a minor, sidebar story to the start of the NFL season — until Goodell made a public display of punishing both men, ensuring the story will last several weeks into the season. I’m sorry, this isn’t deterrence or discipline; it’s simply poor public relations management.
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