Monday, November 14, 2011

I Love this Game, but do I love this League? Ethics and Professional Basketball (Brian E. Konkol)

I wrote the following article approximately ten years ago under the supervision of Rev. Thomas Van Leer, Chaplain of the Minnesota Timberwolves of the National Basketball Association (NBA), whom I had the honor of serving with during my time at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. Upon completion of the article, it was distributed by Rev. Van Leer to every Head Coach and General Manager in the NBA, and I was surprised and excited to receive a significant number of thoughtful responses in the months that followed.

While my thoughts on the subject matter of ethics and professional sports has matured over the years, and my writing style has changed a great deal, I have decided not to edit the original text, for it allows one to recognize how history is repeating itself with the current labor dispute between the National Basketball Association and its players association. My hope is that the text can, among other things, allow for sport fans (like myself) to distinguish between a healthy and destructive love of sport, and thus determine how much value North Americans place upon professional athletes in comparison to other essential areas of society.

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The National Basketball Association (NBA) ended its 1998 season with an eruption of excitement. In the closing seconds of its final game, the league’s greatest player converted a game-winning shot to ensure his team’s third straight championship. It was an amazing finish to an awesome year of professional basketball. All those involved could not have imagined a more thrilling finale to the season (except for those supporting the losing team!). The buzz of entertainment that the NBA had created throughout its eight-month season reached a gigantic climax. As a result, the National Basketball Association continued its steady climb as one of North America’s most popular forms of entertainment.

Basketball excellence was not the only reason for excitement, for the financial condition of the NBA looked just as promising. The average player’s salary had reached 2.2 million dollars per year. Franchise owners signed a brand-new 2.6 billion dollar contract extension with Turner Network Television (TNT) and the National Broadcast Company (NBC). Cities who served as hosts for NBA franchises received major economic boosts resulting from their team’s success. It appeared the NBA was making everyone wealthy and happy. However, beneath all the glitter and behind all the catchy slogans and public relations work, something was very, very, wrong.

Within weeks of its excitement-filled final game, the National Basketball Association and its players union, The National Basketball Players Association, faced a grueling stalemate over labor contract negotiations. The franchise owners claimed they were paying too much money to players and that too many clubs were losing funds. They insisted the league was not financially stable as the public had come to believe. The players, on the other hand, claimed the public opinion was correct in judging the league’s grand financial success. They argued that the league was in a period of unprecedented growth and wealth, thus any financial problems the owners faced were of their own doing. The owners and players appeared to be on polar opposites, and when they were unable to iron out differences, the owners voted to “lock out” the players until an agreement was met. The NBA experienced a work stoppage and suspension of all league business.

Initially, the players and owners met once a week in an attempt to end to their stalemate. But when the sides could not come to a quick agreement, they grew inflexible and decided to rarely talk at all. Negotiations continued to delay throughout the summer months. To make matters increasingly sensitive, the owners threatened that if there was no agreement before the scheduled November start of the season, the league would cancel the entire schedule. The players did not take this warning lightly. Although the superstar athletes (who earned millions) would not be widely affected by the stoppage, the lesser-known (and lesser-paid) players were deeply concerned. The owners also risked great losses, for without a moneymaking product on the basketball court they would lose income. Cities that served as homes for NBA franchises were also at risk, for local businesses would lose revenue and be forced to lay off employees. And possibly the greatest tragedy would be forced upon those who financially supported the entire league – the fans. They would not be able to see and support the game they had grown to love.

The 1998 National Basketball Association Labor Dispute and subsequent lockout personified the ethical character of the NBA. Unfortunately, it became clear that the primary objective of the league was not to create jobs, entertain its fans, or even promote teamwork and well-played basketball. Rather, the NBA showed that its superior aim was the accumulation of money. The labor disputes were not about struggling employees negotiating with equally struggling employers. It was about wealthy owners and players fighting over absurd amounts of money. Sadly, in the end it was the fans – those middle-class men and women whom supplied the league with its funds - who were hurt the worst.

Eventually, after seven long and grueling months of heated debate, the lockout ended with an agreement on a new labor contract. The players and owners were finally able to compromise on the essential elements of the disagreement. However, because of the stubbornness of those involved in the negotiations, the 1998-1999 season had to be reduced from its usual eighty-two game schedule down to fifty. The season was indeed salvaged (which would appear to be reason for praise), but many players were rusty and/or out of shape from a lack of adequate practice and preparation time. Though the NBA was able to carry through with a season, it did not exhibit a satisfactory product. The 1998-1999 season was a poor brand of basketball. Fans were extremely disappointed. Considering how the players and owners fought over large sums of money and failed to contemplate the effects it would have on others, those whom supported the teams in the past wondered whether or not they would continue to invest time and money into these pampered sports figures.

The 1998 Labor disagreement and subsequent lockout forces one to question the relationship between morality and sports. How do professional athletes and owners arrive at decisions? According to the Sports Ethics Institute, sports ethics “is the use of moral values and principles of wrongness to establish standards of conduct. It involves evaluating the soundness of the intentions and decisions of people and organizations engaged in sports-related endeavors.” In a less academic sense, sports ethics refers to the moral guidelines that are inferred from words like “sportsmanship”, “teamwork”, and “fair play.” Why focus on NBA ethics? Why pay attention to the NBA for any reason other than watching basketball? Because of its immense popularity, the NBA affects the lives and livelihood of North Americans in so many ways – as recreation and entertainment, as an income source, as a means for role modeling – it makes sense to examine what the NBA values and how it distinguishes right from wrong. The better a culture examines its primary influences the more equipped it will be at distinguishing its own moral judgments.

An ethical examination of the National Basketball Association must begin with an assessment of its undisputed commander in chief – Commissioner David J. Stern. Stern is generally considered the most progressive-minded and successful commissioner of any North American sports league. Since he took over as the NBA’s chief executive in 1984, overall revenues have quadrupled, the league has expanded by six teams, and it added a popular women’s league. Stern is widely known as a tireless worker, a skilled negotiator, and a shrewd businessman. He knows what he wants and is willing to take whatever steps necessary to ensure his goals are met.

The entire decision-making structure of the NBA stems from the influence of Commissioner Stern. Owners, coaches, players, and the agents who represent them share David Stern’s primary goal – the accumulation of funds. Money, not basketball excellence, teamwork, or fan appreciation, appears to be the superior aim of league personnel. Owners, players, coaches, and agents whom are involved with NBA franchises want what any business person wants – reduced expenses and maximized income. Therefore, most (if not all) actions and decisions are based upon whether or not the superior aim can be achieved. Because of the importance placed upon the league’s superior aim, all those involved in the NBA are judged upon whether or not they can provide the league with increased funds.

The National Basketball Association is filled with a variety of characters that contribute to the overall moral character or the league. The following sections will examine the specific personnel and how they function:

Owners

In many ways, the owner of a multi-million dollar NBA franchise is no different than a local grocery store owner. “Success” appears quite simple. Expenses need to be limited, income needs to be maximized, and profit needs to be achieved. Franchise owners do whatever is necessary to achieve the superior aim – that is, maximized profit. They have the exclusive right to hire and fire personnel, and if they so choose, they might move their franchise from one city to the next (if it serves their superior aim). Essentially, the owner of an NBA franchise “owns” those who he/she employs. If the owner values any given person, (because that person might help them achieve the superior aim), that individual will keep their job. If the owner does not value an individual, they will be eliminated by the organization.

What makes an NBA franchise owner remarkably different from a typical small-business owner is the amount of influence he/she has upon a community. For example, during the 1998 labor dispute many “NBA-town” business leaders lost incredible amounts of money. According to a study by the Cable News Network (CNN), a downtown Phoenix restaurant that normally expected 1,000 people on game nights only saw 200 people walk through its doors. Considering there are forty-two home-games in a typical NBA season, this substantial loss of revenue resulted in loss of jobs. The 1998 decision by players and owners to stall negotiations had numerous negative affects upon communities. Why would the NBA allow such a thing to happen? Sadly, the labor disputes showed the ugliness of the league’s superior aim: regardless of who gets in the way, regardless of who gets hurt, the primary objective is getting themselves the largest piece of the pie possible.

Granted, every owner should not be perceived as a money hungry beast - it would be wrong to prejudge and label. Some owners have a genuine interest in their communities, which is why they invest handsomely in their franchise. Many team organizations donate employee time and energy to local charities and promotions. However, as many skeptics would quickly point out, an owner would not make these “charitable” decisions if it were not for the overall benefit of the business. Skeptics would continue to argue that every deed, every charity, and every humanitarian effort brings positive publicity, which may lead to – you guessed it – more money.

Players

Millions of North American youth spend their days and nights dreaming of becoming a professional athlete. When they imagine playing a sport and having someone pay them millions of dollars to do it, they simply could not be more excited! What’s not to love? NBA players travel from city to city in large private jets, stay in the finest hotels each community has to offer, eat at the most lavish restaurants, and play the game they love in front of thousands of adoring fans. What’s not to admire? It’s no wonder so many North American youth idolize professional athletes.

Even with all the obvious benefits that go along with being an NBA athlete, those involved in the 1998 dispute felt their “greedy” owners had mistreated them. Although player salaries averaged over two million dollars per year, they insisted they were not treated fairly. What became increasingly evident is why players and owners fought in 1998: they shared a common characteristic - greed. Players, with the help of their trusty agents, were trying to get their own piece of the NBA pie. They thought the only way they could obtain more wealth was to withdraw funds away from the owners.

The greedy behavior of basketball players off the court greatly resembles their conduct while on it. Players maintain their superior goal for money by promoting their own abilities and marketability. Individualism is perceived as essential, for if players are viewed as attractive and valuable products, owners will be more willing to provide them with large contracts. Surprisingly, a player’s “value” does not necessarily come from statistical production on the basketball court. Rather, it comes from an ability to put fans in the seats and generate revenue for the owner. An average player who “puts people in the stands” is much more valuable than a good player who does not. Because the superior aim of the league (and owners) is revenue, a player feels pressured to do all he can to make himself valuable. In this “team sport”, individualism holds the highest priority.

Granted, not every player is a money-hungry individualistic self-server. A select number of players build meaningful relationships with fellow teammates, fans, and even owners. They are able to appreciate the joy of being an NBA player and realize they are one of only 450 people in the world lucky enough to play NBA basketball. They see teamwork and integrity as a superior aim; money is blessed side-gift. But sadly, these types of players are increasingly rare. For the most part, players are unable to make meaningful relationships with their teammates because of the inherent greed and competition between them. Players do no just fight with owners for their piece of the pie, but they often fight with fellow players as well.

Fans

It is no accident that basketball fans are mentioned last in this ethical examination of the NBA. Although the NBA could not operate without the support of its loyal fans, the league continuously takes them for granted. Dedicated fans commit themselves to a team, connect with “favorite players”, purchase tickets to the games, buy team merchandise, and pay for parking and concessions. And what do they get in return for their financial support? First, team owners raise ticket prices each year and often threaten to leave town if tax dollars are not offered to pay for new stadiums. Secondly, players often “hold-out” for new contracts or leave town for bigger salaries elsewhere. And finally, as the owners and players displayed in 1998, organizations are willing to forget about the interests of the fans and feud to the point of lockout.

The NBA expects its fans to love their teams and support the players, yet they feel little obligation to love them in return. League commissioners, owners, players, agents, media, marketers, advertisers, and goods and apparel companies all bet upon the fans’ growing addiction to sports. The NBA expects the “sports drug” to keep blue-collar, diehard fans hooked, while catering to the corporate white collar fans that can afford to drop money on season tickets and luxury suites. The NBA assumes that no matter how poorly fans are treated; they will eventually begin pouring their money back into the league.

An important point to remember is that NBA fans are not completely innocent. The art of “jumping on and off the bandwagon” has been witnessed for years as fans switch their loyalties on a frequent basis. On any given day a fan might love a team or hate them – depending upon how they feel that day. In all honesty, fans often display greater disloyalty than the owners and players. In addition, if greed and over-reaching has become what to expect out of the NBA, should the fans not be held responsible for holding the league to a higher standard of integrity? Fans should sense a responsibility to convince sports authorities that they are integral to the survival of the sport. Instead of demanding the reform of greed in the NBA, the fans have ignorantly refused to question the sports teams’ ability to manipulate their interests. The fans are just as much to blame for the ethical downfall of the NBA ethic as the players and owners.

A Proposal

Each member of an organization inherits a collection of moral responsibilities. Whether it involves a health-club, church, construction crew, or professional sports league, there are specific obligations that are included with membership. An individual cannot set itself apart from the organization and/or community in which it dwells, for human history has shown that no individual is capable of existing on its own. A person must be able to relate with others. Individuals rely upon and influence communities and communities rely upon and influence individuals. Thus, a close examination of how relationships function within a given organization will reveal a great deal about the people within it.

The alleged moral deficiencies of the National Basketball Association cannot change unless the individuals comprising it develop into moral decision makers. As highlighted earlier, the league has functioned as a group of individuals whom fight over pieces of the NBA’s financial pie. Because of this conflict, members within the organization are not seen as meaningful but are instead seen as enemies – enemies that might hinder them from the superior aim. Those comprising the league do not see others as assets that help to achieve a communal good, but rather they see each other as roadblocks keeping them from their personal good. The National Basketball Association functions in an environment of disloyalty, individualism, and dysfunctional relationships.

The Spirit of Sport

If the temptation of individualism is resisted, members of a team experience an authentic joy and connection with fellow members of the unit. Joining individual talents with other members of a team in search for a common goal is a grand occasion – one that should be celebrated. However, the pure “Spirit of Sport” is too often resisted. Instead of accepting the natural positive aspects of sports, people often utilize their positive gifts of dedication, work ethic, and competition for negative personal gain. These selfish behaviors allow athletes to drift from a common team goal. The moral deterioration of the National Basketball Association exists because too many participants fail to use their positive talents and have fallen to the temptation of selfishness.

Each professional athlete and owner has reached his or her position because of a certain set of positive attributes. These characteristics might include: competitiveness, patience, ingenuity, creativity, hard work, and performance. These aforementioned attributes in and of themselves are positive character traits. What is essential to the NBA, (and all team sports), is how any given athlete/coach/owner chooses to utilize these gifts. Just as an intelligent engineer can utilize her knowledge for building productive structures or amassing destructive bombs, an NBA employee must choose whether or not his/her skills will be utilized for “good” or “bad”. The traits are not the problem, the poor choices of those whom have them is.

The problem at hand

Every NBA participant must choose whether or not individual gifts will be used for the communal good. If individual gifts are not used for positive aims, there is a negative consequence that evolves because of it. The following is a diagram of five tensions that NBA personnel sway between. The column on the left is the natural “spirit” of sports competition. The column on the right is what occurs when the positive traits are absent and/or denied.

Fair and Honest Competition Harmful and Deceitful Competition

Integrity and Moral Courage Hypocrisy and Moral Cowardness

Responsible Role Model Careless Role Model

Teamwork, Respect, and Loyalty Individualism, Disrespect, and Infidelity

Fair and Honest Competition vs. Harmful and Deceitful Competition

“It’s not cheating unless you get caught” is a popular phrase among all professional sports, not just the NBA. Competition often drives people to the point of looking for any advantage possible. Coaches try to expose the weaknesses of other teams. Owners try to manipulate the dollars and cents of their bookkeepers. Players “act” and “fake” in order to achieve favorable calls on the court. Whether its bluffing, intentionally taking unfair advantage over others, or deliberately “bending” the rules, the naturally positive spirit of sports competition is absent in the NBA. Because the league is so accustomed to the lack of fair and honest competition, the negative consequences of cheating have been overlooked – cheating now seems to be acceptable. This “cheating is OK” attitude of sports is a major problem because millions of people watch the NBA, and inevitably, learn from the NBA.

Does the absence of fair play and “rule bending” have an impact upon society? According to a Rutgers’ Management Education nationwide survey, out of 4,500 high school students polled, 75 percent of them admitted to engaging in serious cheating. In addition, it found 50 percent of the respondents “do not think copying questions and answers from a test is even cheating”. Rutgers professor Donald McCabe, who conducted the survey, said “I think kids today are looking to adults and society for a moral compass, and when they see the behavior occurring for a moral compass, and when they see the behavior occurring there, they don’t understand why they should be held to a higher standard” (“Many students say cheating’s OK”, Kathy Slobogin, CNN.com, May, 2002). Is it fair to blame this cheating all on the NBA? Probably not. But is it safe to say that the rule bending of professional sports has something to do with it? Definitely.

Integrity and Moral Courage vs. Hypocrisy and Moral Cowardness

An individual with integrity is trustworthy, displays moral soundness, and resists the corrupting influences and motives of society. Therefore, a person of integrity is one who lives out his/her moral values in daily living and decision-making. Many NBA personnel fail to live with integrity, (as shown by the already mentioned failure of the league to compete fairly). Regardless of whether or not an individual has moral values to begin with, the difficult step is keeping those values in mind when making daily decisions. With professional athletes, coaches, owners, and the agents whom represent all making important decisions, they are constantly given the option whether or not to “do good” in a given situation. Do NBA personnel act with integrity? This question is extremely complicated. Take this illustration as an example:

An NBA owner is asked by a local car dealer if his star player can stop by the dealership, make a public appearance, and shoot a new commercial. The owner sees this as a great idea for two reasons: First, getting his player into the public increases the exposure of his “product”. This exposure might lead to more people attending games, buying merchandise, and so on. Secondly, corporate sponsors are a huge deal in the world of sports. If he does this favor for the car dealer, a return favor might include the purchase of season tickets, a luxury suite, or even promotion of the team at the dealership. Both the owner and the car dealer see this as a “win/win situation.” They agree to have the star player shoot the commercial the next day.

An hour later, the owner contacts his player and tells him what time to be at the dealership. One problem. The player had already agreed to visit a local elementary school that day, and he does not want to cancel. For the children, having a star athlete show up at school might be the highlight of the year – he does not want to disappoint them.

The owner gets angry. This car dealer is an important contact. He does not want to disappoint him. If this star player is not able to make the appearance then the car dealer might be upset and chose not invest in the franchise. An NBA player would mean a great deal to the car dealer’s business, and the car dealer’s investment would mean a great deal to the owner’s franchise. The owner pressures the player to make a decision.

What should the player do? In a sense, because he is under contract by the owner he should do what he is told, right? This promotion would be of great help to the franchise. Many NBA jobs are dependent upon corporate sponsors. Making the appearance would be a great move for the team. But what about the promise he made to the children? What kind of message would he be sending by breaking his promise? The children would be extremely disappointed. The fact of the matter is that someone is going to be disappointed, and the player must choose who he is more obligated to serve and what decision to make. Is he entitled to serve his employer (who signs his checks and will decide whether or not to re-sign him when his contract runs out) or is he entitled to keep his promise to the children? The answer to this question highlights the difficult tension of moral courage.

Responsible Role Model vs. Careless Role Model

Philadelphia Sixer’s superstar Charles Barkley made waves his early 1990’s Nike ad when he pounded a basketball and said, “I am not a role-model. Parents are role models. I’m paid to play basketball, not to raise your kids.” The shoe commercial sparked a giant debate as to how professional athletes should be viewed as models for youth. Whereas Barkley insisted that basketball players should not be in charge of raising kids, others argued that because they have chosen to live their lives in the public sphere, athletes should be held accountable as role models.

Professional sports owners, coaches, players, and agents all have the potential of being observed in the public light. Therefore, it is their natural duty to act as positive role models. However, each year the NBA is flooded with a wide-range of public relation problems. Some players are caught with drugs, some cheating on their wives, some driving while intoxicated. Owners have been caught cheating on contract deals and badmouthing city governments. These are hardly the types of people society wants influencing its children. NBA personnel have an incredible opportunity to act as positive models of moral activity, but because many have failed to serve these natural responsibilities, the absence of moral good has led to a modeling of negative behavior. Players are role models, but unfortunately, their immoral behavior too often displays what types of models they are - poor ones.

Teamwork, Respect, and Loyalty vs. Individualism, Disrespect, and Infidelity

Teamwork, respect, and loyalty are the most crucial aspect of the league’s developing moral character. The National Basketball Association is incapable of achieving any of sport’s positive moral virtues of if it lacks teamwork, respect, and loyalty. For example, how confident can someone be if he has to question whether or not someone is “looking out” for him or her? How can someone achieve any peace of mind if they are constantly forced to question the loyalty of others? A successful league is one that embraces teamwork, respect, and loyalty. A league full of members who only look out for themselves is doomed for failure. Therefore, as each member of the National Basketball Association accepts or rejects the core values of teamwork, respect, and loyalty, the results of their decisions will inevitably decide whether or not the league will flourish or pass away.

Sadly, the majority of NBA personnel are loyal to one thing: themselves. Most (if not all) players and owners do all they can in order to achieve his/her superior aim – regardless of who gets in the way. Because an NBA career last only a set amount of years, many individuals consistently strive to get as much fame and fortune in a given amount of time as possible. And what about trust? How can you trust anyone when they are also looking for their piece of the same pie you are going after? Some players and owners would argue they cannot afford to trust anyone because once they do they will be left in the cold. The central question of the NBA is whether or not the organization lacks trust because of its members or the members lack trust because of the organization.

Imagine if…

How would the National Basketball Association look if it were an organization filled with individuals who practice mutual respect, fair competition, and dare I say…love? What kind of league would it be if its individual members saw each other as trusted allies in the common search of success rather than enemies who can only inhibit it? How much different would a trustworthy NBA look from the one that currently exists? How would the American public respond to a league that displays trustworthiness rather that individualistic greed? The future of the National Basketball Association is not entirely dependent upon the quality of its basketball, but rather, whether or not the public chooses to trust in a league that has too often displayed little reason to be trusted. Fans will not invest in a league it does not trust.

Closing Remarks

Granted, the ideas contained in this presentation are a bit idealistic. I know that as long as humans are involved within any organization there is the potential of corruption and immorality. In addition, any time a group of people is involved in an intense competitive atmosphere, the potential for corruption dramatically increases. However, I feel that all humans are capable of change, and all change must inevitably start with an idea, value, or belief. Perhaps, the value of respect, love, and trustworthiness is where the league needs to begin its transformation. As a life-long basketball fan and a faithful believer in the power of God, I feel the National Basketball Association is capable of winning back its fans and creating an atmosphere of mutual respect. This task is not easy, but it is possible if the league makes it a priority. The National Basketball Association can revolutionize itself if the individual members within it decide to change the behaviors that have plagued it – one decision at a time. After some diligent work and patience, the NBA will again enjoy great success and be a league in which people will say, “I love this game!”