Stewardship of the NBA itself has improbably become a topic of debate as the NBA lockout rolls ever closer to month No. 5. As we discussed last week, Grantland columnist Bill Simmons asked a bunch of alternately valid and vapid questions about the future of basketball with respects to the lockout, and in the process said that the league’s fate as a business can’t be left in the hands of the players’ side because that group has “limited intellectual capital.”Sharp-eyed readers caught a glint of reverse Gumbel in there, leading Simmons to brush back on Twitter — “I would have said it about any athletes” was the story — and in his Friday column, where he longwindedly doubled down without addressing a single point raised in The Hook or in my own subsequent tweets.1 Simmons’ argument — and I don’t think I can at all be accused of twisting — is basically that NBA team owners are better suited to develop the business of the NBA of tomorrow than the players or their representatives are.
This is the same argument that has a certain section of Washington praying at the altar of “job creators” who haven’t done s–t. Maybe it’s our capitalist roots, I don’t know, but for some reason in this country we believe that the wealthy are capable of anything. Why does the fact that Wyc Grousbeck and his father Irv have made a fortune as venture capitalists mean that they can lead the NBA forward? The NBA is not a business like other businesses — running an investment firm and the third-largest pro sports league in the United States are not remotely comparable. What expertise do any NBA owners have beyond “being rich and therefore knowing s–t”? Hell, Kobe Bryant has been in the league longer than half of the them.
You trust Donald Sterling and James Dolan with the stewardship of our game? I’d rather hand it to Baron Davis and Eddy Curry, and I’m almost not even joking. It’s weird, the double-standard that arises when it comes to representations of wealth. LeBron James is worth more than at least a couple owners. Yet because he earned that money via the genetic lottery and someone like Dan Gilbert built his empire from the ground up, we respect the latter’s wealth more as an achievement … no matter how it’s earned. It’s just taken as more valid. It’s not just a race thing or an athlete thing: I think Mark Cuban has no doubt suffered some level of exclusion in the business community because he’s “new money,” profiting off of the dot-com boom before the bubble burst. Just as any number of people consider LeBron lucky for being born a future 6’8″ monster of athleticism, I’m sure a number of wealthy people consider Cuban to be lucky for selling broadcast.com when he did. (And while we’re talking about the genetic lottery, let’s not count the number of NBA owners who were born wealthy, OK?) No one argues that the owners have a more desperate need for an expanding NBA — guys like Robert Sarver need team values to head upward so he can make a decent return on the franchise he overpaid for. No one argues that by investing hundreds of millions of dollars into the league that team owners don’t have the largest role in shaping the growth of the NBA. But dismissing the players because of their brains is just noxious stuff.
We know that we can create jobs at the federal government by funding infrastructure upgrades, which also happen to be desperately needed. Instead, half of Congress fights tooth and nail for tax breaks to the rich to help spur job creation, some trickle-down bulls–t more reminiscent of feudal England than America at its greatest. The NBA players’ union is in a fight like that, fighting a real battle for real dollars. Beyond the revenue split, the union is holding to its guns on system changes (like a highly punitive tax and tweaks to Bird rights) that would effectively shrink the number of guaranteed contracts signed every summer. The NBA, on the other hand, argues that changing up the system will lead to greater competitive balance, which will raise the league’s tide and eventually result in more money in the system for players. In other words, give me that bird in your hand and you can have to two in this bush.
This is a legit tactical battle that the union is in. What’s Simmons concerned about?
From day one, the players have approached this lockout like it’s a competition – they don’t want to be beaten, they’re not rolling over, they’re staying strong and all that macho bullshit. It’s all small-picture stuff. When’s the last time you heard someone from the players’ side say, “Maybe the owners are right, maybe we should work with them to create a better system?” Where are the Bill Russells, the Bill Bradleys, the Oscar Robertsons, the Phil Jacksons, the Bob Cousys and Tommy Heinsohns – thoughtful stars pushing for real change instead of just pretending to be tough at a meeting? Where are the guys who stood up before the 1964 All-Star Game in Boston and basically said, “The current system is broken and needs to change NOW, or we’re not playing?”
Here’s the thing: the players don’t want the system change NOW, and they want to play! Comparing the current battle to 1964 is an insult to those legends who threatened to walk out of the All-Star Game — the game done changed. Current NBA players’ priority is not to create a more competitively balanced sport or to buy the league’s claims about parity. It is to preserve the gains that the legends of ’64 fought so hard to achieve. You hear the players talking about “future generations” of NBA players all of the time. Look, they actually mean it. That’s who Bill Russell and Bill Bradley and Oscar Robertson were looking out for. Adrian Wojnarowski explained Kevin Garnett’s perspective a few weeks ago: The Big Ticket is done signing big contracts, and stands to lose $20 million if the season is cancelled, $20 million he wouldn’t even make back up if the union reigned victorious. He’s doing it because it’s the right thing to do for his union.
The players have approached this lockout like it’s a competition – they don’t want to be beaten, they’re not rolling over, they’re staying strong and all that macho bullshit. If that isn’t exactly what unions are supposed to do when concessions are demanded and a lockout instituted, then dress me in petticoats and call me Colonel Soufflé. I love this twisted logic applied to, say, teachers and public servants in Wisconsin when Scott Walker took them out behind the woodshed. Yes, instead not wanting to be beaten, not rolling over and staying strong, the unions should have worked with Walker to come up with a better system. What’s the saying? You don’t negotiate with terrorists?2 Yeah, that.
Simmons’ fallacy is in assuming that the owners are interested in a better system and not a more profitable system. And while Simmons has been plenty critical of the owners and David Stern, ignoring that basic tenet of the lockout in criticising players for not offering solutions is irresponsible. To attribute that unwillingness to re-imagine the NBA to the players’ side’s lack of intellectual capital is simply dangerous conclusion-jumping that’s going to get someone hurt.
The truly remarkable thing about this is that if a young Bill Simmons had listened to a curmudgeon like 2011 Bill Simmons, he never would have hung up his own shingle and rode the web content wave to the top of the mountain. I can hear old sports editors of the late 1990s telling themselves that cub writers don’t have the intellectual capital to circumvent the traditional grind of a journalism career filled with agate pages and high school volleyball and bowling scores. But Simmons successfully pulled it off, and has a huge career because of it.
When you dismiss the intellectual capital of entire classes of people because of their vocation, their college experience or — worst of all — their race, you are begging for trouble. That Simmons can’t see what he’s stepped in shows you what part of the system he’s a part of now.
1 He did throw scare quotes around the word scholar when referring to a black academic who took him to task. But please note that he would have written “scholar” if it had been a white academic, too. (The best part of this: in a discussion about intellectual capital, the sportswriter deems the academic’s response too complex for his readers to understand. Makes you wonder if the sportswriter has the intellectual capital to be taking up this cause.)
2 Will anyone twisting my terrorist line please note that I would say the same about NHL/NFL/MLB owners? Thanks.
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