Last Friday, as millions of Americans emerged from their tryptophan-induced food comas, fueled up their pepper spray canisters, and embarked on our annual nationwide consumerism crusades, news came of a tentative agreement reached between the owners and the players that would end the NBA lockout and resume an abbreviated 2011-2012 season beginning with a Christmas Day triple-header extravaganza on ABC.
The deal is expected to be officially ratified by both parties sometime this week, but it’s unlikely that the league will move forward without some residual damage sustained to its already tarnished and rapidly deteriorating public image.
Diehard fans like myself rejoiced – or rather heaved a collective sigh of relief – upon hearing the news, but as baseball season gradually gave way to football season, which soon after overlapped with college hoops, casual fans remained content with their current sports fixes and became more and more indifferent to the prospect of a canceled NBA season as they grew weary of the public spectacle that’s played itself out in the sports media over the past 149 days.
It’s unfortunate, because for the past few years, the NBA has enjoyed an immense amount of global popularity, and the 2011 Finals between the Mavs and the Heat produced their highest television ratings in history, but a summer filled with heated, prolonged, and ultimately futile negotiations between the league, the owners, and players’ association has essentially threatened to undo much of the progress the league has made over the past decade repairing its reputation following the fallout from the previous lockout in 1998, as well as other ugly incidents, which have alienated its fan base and ultimately fed the growing perception that the new generation of NBA players are nothing more than a bunch of whiny, selfish, egotistical, and overpaid “thugs” who are only interested in deepening their pockets and padding their individual stat lines.
What’s worse was that these negative criticisms carried with them an aura of not-so-thinly-veiled racism, as more and more players erupted onto the scene with playground moves, braided hair, and a decidedly “urban” sartorial style (and other such euphemisms). It became such a P.R. nightmare that Commissioner David Stern eventually instituted a league-wide dress code which, among other things, banned the donning of gold chains and required inactive players to wear suits when seated on the sidelines during games.
But the league had never suffered a setback like it did after the infamous Palace brawl, during which Ron Artest (a.k.a. Metta World Peace) and a few of his erstwhile teammates punched out a handful of drunken fans who had hurled beers at them from the stands after Artest had committed a flagrant foul in the waning moments of an otherwise meaningless mid-season game. Soon after, the league imposed mandatory ejections and subsequent suspensions and fines for certain types of flagrant fouls in an effort to curtail the types of scenarios that lead to cleared benches, shoving matches, errant punches, game delays, and reduced viewership.
If that didn’t go far enough, just last season Stern also implemented the “Respect the Game” initiative, which instituted additional fines and suspensions for any player who argues “excessively” or “demonstrably” with the referees, and for all the preliminary controversy surrounding these initiatives, they have essentially accomplished precisely what they set out to accomplish, with little to no fanfare, and, more important to Stern, have reflected positively on the image of the league in the public eye. Supporters saw these measures as a long overdue restoration of the values they once cherished in the golden days of the sport, while the critics couldn’t help but notice the racial overtones associated with their attempts to “tame” these out-of-control black athletes.
All the while, the players have been forced to more or less grin and bear it, mostly because Stern, rather shrewdly, has always hit them where it hurts the most (their pocketbooks), so all the pent-up anger and frustration over what they perceived as years of prejudice and infantilizing on the part of league execs reached its boiling point once the CBA expired and the players were finally able to draw their proverbial line in the sand.
When Bryant Gumball likened Stern and other league execs to a bunch of “plantation owners” (a sentiment that was later echoed by then players’ association lawyer Jeffrey Kessler and widely condemned by members of both parties as well as the media), Magic Johnson quickly came to Stern’s defense, claiming that no one had done more to empower African Americans in the sport during his tenure; however, the images we saw each day on television appeared to tell a very different story: a bunch of predominately white, Jewish businessmen and team owners (with one of the few exceptions being Michael Jordan) attempting to exert their dominance over a league filled with young, black athletes, and the temptation to redraw the battle lines along some sort of invisible racial divide proved too great to resist for some.
To those of us who care about the game of basketball (as MJ insists on referring to it in the passive tense) and who follow it compulsively, phrases like “BRI,” “systems issues,” “mid-level exceptions,” and “soft caps,” had depressingly replaced the usual dialogue about preseason trades, lottery picks, and potential title contenders.
But the layperson was not interested in the nuances of the collective bargaining agreement. Given our current economic climate, they didn’t buy into the argument that either side was somehow getting an unfair shake, especially in light of the Occupy Movement that had garnered so much attention and support for the plight of millions of Americans faced with legitimate financial concerns.
It remains to be seen whether television ratings or ticket sales will suffer this season or what, if any, long-term implications there might be, so for now, I’m just grateful that the NBA is back and that we can leave behind the “business” of basketball.