NBA’s Balancing Act: The Price of Player Person in a Profit-Driven League

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Chaos has always been the villain for NBA executives. From the commissioner and those he serves, the philosophy is clear, and the equation is simple: keep fans interested to drive up profit. The variable that is constantly instructed to adapt and calibrate their persona is the employee. NBA players are on salary which, as we all know, means more than just being present and entertaining on court. It also means creating a marketing identity that extends the interest of the fans beyond what is showcased during game time. The “it’s not personal, is business” mantra allows an emotional portal to exist whereby players can suffer from an identity crisis.

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Russell Westbrook in post-game press conference

Not only are they scrutinized for their professional career decision-making, but they are also having to justify their wants and desires to the fans and media pundits. It is a fragile balancing act that can only succeed by those who can embrace the chaos dumped on them. Players such as LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, and their fellow All-Star caliber players are forced to cater and lead by example to the higher-ups, all in the name of progressing and preserving the interest of the sport.

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Adam Silver with NBA owners at a press conference

NBA’s Balancing Act: Player Compliance

The commissioner and those he answers to are counting on the unconditional participation of their employees. Whether it’s playing in brand-driven in-season tournaments, failing All-Star Weekend formats, redundant and bordering on the frustrating press conferences, engaging in pointless time-out videos displayed on giant in-arena screens, behaving “appropriately” and per the laws on the court, and interacting in a wholesome manner with their subscribers (the fans). I’m sure there’s a lot more that players do behind the scenes and all of it, without exception, is in the spirit of churning the gears of profit.

Not that there’s anything wrong with making money. What I find disturbing is that there is a silent, albeit prevalent, understanding that realism has no place in the NBA. The cost of saying and acting how a player truly feels is hefty if it falls out of the designed prism of the owners. Sure, NBA players get to wear what they want, they are permitted movement (within reason), and they have “enough” money to keep calm and play. Because that’s what the fans expect. To keep showing up and giving it their best because the moment either of those two elements are absent, there will be backlash from the subscribers.

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Adam Silver sandwiched between Clippers owner Steve Balmer and Hornets owner Michael Jordan

NBA’s Balancing Act: Owner Support

The owners will meet, and the commissioner will dole out the punishment as they see fit and completely disregard the reality. Fatigue, disinterest from the familiar, frustration from the absurdities that encompass the life of an NBA playing and paid employee is of little to no concern…unless it hurts interest. The powers from the mountaintop have the funds to meet any demands set by the players. But they don’t want to relinquish the power. Yet, it is through force with the illusion of power that owners and NBA executives keep the wheels turning on this bus to satiate the subscribers.

Player empowerment, whether it’s through the initiative of mobility and the privilege of earning, isn’t real in its all-encompassing sense. The decision will always be in the meaty paws of those who employ them. It can be speculated, and I’m sure more than a few have expressed this sentiment, that “everyone is replaceable.” With the exceptions of former LA Clippers owner, Donald Sterling, and the infamous former Phoenix Suns tyrant Robert Sarver, the NBA sides with the owners. Unless there is no point of return. When it comes to the players, they are walking the wobbly tightrope every single day they are contracted with the NBA.

NBA's Balancing Act
LeBron James in a Cavaliers uniform taking a selfie with young fans

A Look Ahead

The gloom and despair are cushioned given the fame, riches, and access that cascades blissfully into the laps of everyone who can play for the NBA. What is being denied is their desire to be real. To express their individualism in a corporation that intends to sterilize the business with the intent to make it more global and thus more profitable. This “good for all time zones” philosophy might appeal to new fans of a certain age, race, and sensibility but it masks the true nature of the sport. One built by those who had next to nothing with the hope of providing an avenue for their loved ones to be comfortable.

The NBA will evolve but only along the business track rather than the moral one. It’s an understanding that might come to an inevitable end. Five, ten, fifteen years down the line, when players, the likes of LeBron James and his fellow mega-rich athletes, who would want to have a seat at the table, will use their resources and tools to shift the landscape and overall atmosphere of the NBA, for better or worse according to perspective. Without a doubt, they will be in a strong position to bring back realism to the NBA. A vision that will enhance the integrity of the sport and, in my opinion, set a chain reaction for other American sports to follow.

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