Athletes Are Ruining Sports!

Players have taken control of the NBA from the owners. That's bad for fans. But probably a good thing.

ESPN’s Rick Reilly, an eleven-time National Sportswriter of the Year, has noticed that the players are taking over the NBA. And he’s not happy.

This is what the NBA has become: very tall, very rich twenty-somethings running the league from the backs of limos, colluding so that the best players gang up on the worst. To hell with the Denvers, the Clevelands, the Torontos. If you aren’t a city with a direct flight to Paris, we’re leaving. Go rot.

There’s no rule against it, so they do it. Ray Allen and Paul Pierce beg Kevin Garnett to please come to Boston. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh connive to play in Miami. At his wedding in New York City this past July, Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire and Chris Paul toasted to all three playing in New York someday. Stoudemire switched this past summer. Anthony was traded there Monday. And Paul is set to enter free agency next season, bags already packed.

Great for Spike Lee. Sucks for the game.

“The question is, will the fans support players whose egos are bigger than the game?” asks Denver Nuggets coach George Karl, who suddenly finds himself coaching a locker room full of nobodies. “Will the fans support all these players and agents manipulating things? Because if they don’t, if the switch [by fans] is abrupt enough, the league could be at a crisis point.”

Hello, David Stern? Did you leave a wake-up call for the 21st century? Your clubs need to be able to protect their great players with a franchise tag, as the NFL does. If that isn’t priority No. 1 in your lockout talks, you need the Wite-Out.


The grinding unfairness of it all: The NBA used to work on a turn system. You will lose, but if you hang in there, you’ll be rewarded with a very high draft pick like an Anthony, and your turn at glory will arrive.

Not anymore. The superstars are in charge now. Now, you lose and you get a pick, and that pick immediately starts texting his pals to see where they’ll all wind up in three years. Pretty soon, you’re back losing again.

Get ready, Oklahoma City.

You wonder why the NFL continues to pull away from the NBA in this country? Three words: Green Bay Packers. Two more: Indianapolis Colts. The NFL finds a way to let cities that don’t happen to have a Versace store hang on to their great players like, oh, say, Peyton Manning.

Reilly’s absolutely right about what’s happening. And I agree that it’s bad for fans. But I don’t see a cure that’s not worse than the disease.

Major League Baseball has had the same problem longer than the NBA, but nobody really noticed. In MLB, which unlike the NBA and NFL has no salary cap, owners can bid whatever they want for the best free agents. And only a handful of teams have the resources to pay the really big bucks. So, the best players tend to wind up going to the Yankees and the Red Sox, with the Cubs, Dodgers, White Sox, and a couple of others bidding for the rest.

But fans see the problem there as being tied to the owners, not the players. We all understand that, if offered a choice between $250 million for ten years with the Yankees or $75 million for five years with the local team, we’d be in pinstripes.

In the NBA, though, there’s a soft salary cap. Every team has essentially the same amount of money to spend and the same max salary it can offer to superstars. Most players, then, would rather play in a world class city than in the hinterlands. Not only are the marketing opportunities much better there but the lifestyle choices available to an obscenely rich 26-year-old are simply more appealing. So, everyone pretty much wants to be in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Dallas, Miami, and Chicago. And, preferably, with the Knicks or Lakers, not the Clippers or Nets.

The NFL is a much more tightly controlled cartel. Owners share most revenue 32 ways, ensuring competitive balance. And their salary cap is hard, so there’s very little wiggle room, aside from creative use of signing bonuses. Plus, the union has given teams various “tags” to restrict free agency at the cost of paying very high salaries to those so designated.

And that’s great, if you’re a fan. I very much want to see teams be rewarded for smart drafting and to keep their best players around for the duration of their careers. That’s how it was in the Good Old Days.

The problem with that is that it treats players like indentured servants. Sure, they’re well compensated. But all the leagues have amateur drafts, wherein they bid on the services of young players coming out of college and high school. The players have very little leverage: They either go to the team that drafted them or they don’t play. So, you might have spent your whole life in East Texas rooting for the Dallas Cowboys and be forced to migrate to Philadelphia and play for the hated Eagles. Or, you might have grown up in Boston dreaming of playing for the Celtics but have to live out your hoop dreams playing for the Toronto Raptors.

Worse yet, you might buy a house in your new city and be traded like some unwanted MRE side dish to a new team in a new city. In some cases, two or three times in a single season!

If you’re Baron Davis, you can be shipped from your hometown LA Clippers off to the purgatory of Cleveland, where even hometown boy LeBron James didn’t want to live.

Free agency, in addition to allowing players to get paid what they’re worth on the open market, allows them some say over where they and their family will live. The NFL takes that away from its superstars. That’s good for the fans. But it’s horribly unfair to the players.

But, even in the NFL, players are starting to realize they have leverage. Oh, sure, the occasional 1st round quarterback (John Elway in 1983 and Eli Manning in 2004) has threatened to not report to the team that drafted them and managed to force trades. But we’ve actually seen a string of players doing that over the last couple of years, with Jay Cutler being the most prominent case.

The best the leagues can do to entice players to stay with their original teams is something like the Larry Bird Rule that used to do the trick in the NBA: an ability for the player’s team to pay more money than other teams are allowed to bid. But, if the player decides he’d rather take a little less money to play somewhere that he thinks affords him a better lifestyle or a better opportunity to win a championship, the fact that Cleveland and Toronto and Oklahoma City are less attractive is just a fact franchises there should have to live with.

The bottom line is that players are human beings, who ought to have the right to take their talents to South Beach — or wherever they’re wanted. Just like fans can do.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. wr says:

    It’s a well known fact among sports writers that the only people who matter in sports are the sports writers…

  2. The athletes have had a lot of help when it comes to ruining professional sports.

  3. Dave says:

    I don’t understand how a free market country like the US can have such a heavy-handed socialist approach to the business of sports––especially compared to big time soccer in Europe, where salary caps and franchise tags are unheard of.

    Maybe we’re less free market than we think and just more pro-management than labor favoring Europe.

  4. James Joyner says:


    Aside from baseball, the major American leagues are cartels. There’s a very limited number of franchises and they’ve decided that it’s important to maintain competitive balance. The way to do that is to make it easy for the bad teams to catch up.

    The bottom line is that the teams compete on the playing field but they’re all in business together.

  5. It comes down to whether you thinks the teams are operating as competitors or the leagues are operating as competitors. There’s a reason the teams are called franchises.

    Also, there are many other differences between US professional sports (note plural) and European professional football (note singular) that make the analogy a little less enlightening than you propose. I don’t see relegation being too popular or practical here, and in many respects MLB effectively has the same scheme as European professional football when it comes to the haves and the have nots.

  6. Herb says:

    As a devoted Nuggets fan, I’m not too happy about the Melo trade. He brought an excitement to Nuggets basketball that we just didn’t have before. Ever. That said, I understand his desire to leave; we are indeed a small town in a big league.

    I just wish he didn’t take Chauncey Billups with him….that really stings!

  7. So if the players are basically calling the shots, creating their own pick-up teams (with someone else’s money, natch) then why do they need a union?

    While player activity is certainly partially responsible for the New York and Miami teams’ current compositions, the owners of the acquiring teams at minimum actively colluded with them, and they also stand to profit if the moves are good.

    But as the Miami Heat are proving, and as the newly en-Melo’ed New York Knicks are soon to prove, it takes more than a bunch of big names to win championships. Some big names, yes — but a good team makes the names on it big, not the other way around.

  8. EddieInCA says:

    James –

    Under your scenario, the NBA will become like MLB, which will probably be gone in 20 years. I’d rather the NBA (and MLB) become more like the NFL, where franchises like Pittsburgh, Indianapolis and Carolina at least have a chance go to the Super Bowl every couple of years.

    When was the last time the Pittsburgh Pirates even had a winning season? When was the last time the Kansas City Royals got a sniff of the playoffs. In this day and age, unless there is revenue sharing, there only road down for a US professional league is down.

    Under your scenario, we’ll end up with a professional NBA with 12-14 teams, which would completely suck. Why will an owner keep a franchise in Oklahoma City, Cleveland or Toronto if they can’t be competitive? If you can’t keep players, and if you’re losing money (the majority of NBA teams lost money last year, and one, the New Orleans Hornets, are actually OWNED by the league), why would you invest $500 Million in an NBA Franchise.

    And the analogy to European Football (Soccer) leagues is not apt. In all of Europe, and the rest of the world, if you play in a top league, you can be “RELEGATED” if you finish in the bottom 2, 3 or 4 positions of the table (standings). That changes things dramatically. Imagine if the Golden State Warriors, or the Minnesota Timberwolves, of the NBA, finished at the bottom of the standings, and had to play the following hear in the Developmental League. That doesn’t happen in the country, But in England, France, Greece, Germany, Ethopia, Australia, China, Korea, etc, etc, that’s EXACTLY what happens. You don’t win, you go down. The the top two or three positions in the league below you get “promoted” to the top league.

    You should probably revise your post, because you’re comparing apples to big freaking watermelons.

  9. James Joyner says:


    I absolutely agree that something like the NFL revenue sharing model is the right way to go. (Even it has problems, witness deadbeat owners like Mike Brown who pocket the money and refuse to reinvest it in scouting, coaching, and so forth.)

    MLB’s model is the worst of the major sports. The only hope to fans of small market teams is that they catch lightning in a bottle by drafting and/or trading for superstar young talent, particularly frontline pitchers,and then constantly get those moves right. Because, even developing superstars constantly — as the Montreal Expos did in the 1980s and 1990s — is rewarded by having to trade them away once they’re free agency eligible.

    My only point here is that players are human beings. Developing a system that’s good for fans and for small market teams means taking away the right of the players to live where they want. That’s an awfully high price to pay.

    And, really, it makes no sense, in the American context, where spectator sports are television-driven, to have teams in places like San Jose, Oklahoma City, and Jacksonville.

    The comparisons with European football were made by a commenter, not me. I actually like the relegation concept but it’s not practical unless there’s a second tier league ready to promote. MLB could do it, but the other leagues don’t have anything close to AAA-level analogues.

  10. Murray says:

    “I actually like the relegation concept but it’s not practical unless there’s a second tier league ready to promote. MLB could do it, but the other leagues don’t have anything close to AAA-level analogues.”

    I too like the promotion/relegation concept. What if part of the profits of NBA was used to partially fund a second tier league? That’s how minor football (soccer) leagues in most European countries survive financially.

    I guess it’s all wishful thinking since there isn’t a governing body independent of owners.

  11. EddieInCA says:

    James –

    With all due respect, I think you’re looking at it wrong.

    This isn’t about where they want to live, it’s about where their employers want them to work.

    They can live anywhere they want, but if they want to earn the amount of money they want to earn, they don’t have a say in where their employers (NBA, in this case) want them to work.

    I’m in the film/tv business, I can choose to stay and live in my home in Los Angeles. However, I CHOOSE to go where my employers (the studios and networks) send me in order to make the ridiculous salary they’re paying me. They won’t pay me the same in Los Angeles. It’s a trade off I’m willing to make because of the lifestyle I’m afforded by traveling for work. So, rather than being in my nice home in Los Angeles, I spend most of most years living in places like Hagerstown, Maryland, or Shreveport, Louisiana, or Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

    Similarly, no one is forcing NBA players to be NBA players. They’re choosing to do this as a job. And for that job, they’re paid astounding sums of money. To get that astounding amount of money to work, they have to go to work where your employer tell you to go work. Also, part of the reason they get this amount of money is that they’re part of a larger collective, that, without, no one gets paid. So it’s a tradeoff they SHOULD be willing to take.

    We’ll have to agree to disagree because I can’t figure out why something that is so simple to me, isn’t as equally simple to you. And I’m sure you feel the same way.

  12. James Joyner says:

    @EddieInCA :

    That works only if you think of the league, not the individual teams, as employing players. But players sign contracts with teams, not the league.

    If someone signs a contract to play with, say, the Boston Celtics, they should expect to have to travel for 41 games a year to various NBA cities where the Celtics play. That’s where the job is, after all. But it’s unreasonable to expect to have one’s contract traded to another city and be doomed to live there for the remainder of the contract. Doing so entails different tax rates, different opportunities for one’s spouse and kids, etc.

  13. tom says:

    this article is riddled with misconceptions.

    As a Cleveland fan the Cavs making the NBA finals was great. For basketball fans watching them get trounced by the Spurs was boring- and the ratings reflected that.

    The NBA spent a lot of years with weak teams from the east (76ers, nets, Cavs) getting smashed by a powerhouse from the west (Lakers Spurs) and often the most interesting match ups happened well before the finals.

    Fans speak with their wallets and ratings and they clearly prefer seeing two dominant teams smash each other in a 7 game series than see 16 good teams make the playoffs. As it stands now we have the potential for 4-5 very good to great teams every year which means multiple fantastic match ups in the playoffs as opposed to 1 followed by a disappointing final.

    Sucks for me as a Cleveland fan, but for an average basketball fan the prospect of the Knicks, Heat, Celtics, Lakers, Spurs, Magic and Bulls all having the potential to be phenomenal teams is great for the average fan.

  14. James Joyner says:


    For casual NBA fans such as myself, it’s absolutely better to have a handful of superstar-laden teams that battle each other year after year.

    But, for legitimate fans — as I am with the NFL and college football — it’s much better to have competitive balance. That is, it’s important that YOUR team have a realistic chance of winning a title one day. That doesn’t exist in MLB for most fans. Increasingly, it’s becoming that way in the NBA.

  15. superdestroyer says:


    Your model of the NBA is that it is a television program with a cast of a few name players and who appear on television on Wednesdays and Fridays. Then the playoffs come around and those players are features.

    Having a few good teams means that ticket sales goes down and that most cities do not create any NBA fans expect for a few black kids who want to focus of how well Lebron and Kobe can throw it down.

  16. tom says:

    That is, it’s important that YOUR team have a realistic chance of winning a title one day.

    The assumption you are making is that the current number of teams is the correct number. What is it about “my team” that implies they should exist at all? Perhaps 50 years ago it made a lot more sense to follow only the team in the town you lived in, but realistically there is no such constraint today. The question I ask is why should a team that demonstrates little to no ability to win deserve to exist? Why does Mike Brown make a boatload off money on the Bengals every year? Why do the Jaguars- who can’t sell out playoff games- exist as a franchise? The circumstances for bad teams to continue to exist is the cartel system that you seem to endorse (or at least favor over other options). A lot of current fans would be pissed if their team was the one that disappeared but that doesn’t automatically mean that the resulting product is worse or less desirable. MLB is undeniably more profitable when the Red Sox and Yankees both have great teams, but didn’t do nearly as well when the Indians make the world series (even though those teams were entertaining, quality teams to watch).

    Another basic misconception: Bird rights often hurt small market teams. Moving from a small market team to a bigger market might be worth losing a few million bucks but it is almost never worth it to move from a small market team to another small market team and lose that cash. For example see the Cavs a few years ago. They tried to land Ray Allen or Michael Redd to complement Lebron but couldn’t do it because they couldn’t offer as much. Limits on pay excentuate the difference in lifestyle that big city has over a smaller market.

  17. James Joyner says:


    I agree that there are teams that don’t deserve to exist. The NFL expanded into some strange markets for reasons I don’t understand. Presumably, since the division structure is now perfectly symmetrical, the number of teams will remain capped at 32 for some time. Los Angeles will doubtless get one of the existing teams, now that the stadium financing issue appears to finally be resolved.

    My strong guess is that the NBA will contract as many as four teams as a result of the next CBA. It just doesn’t make sense for them to have teams in Oklahoma City, New Orleans, and several other small markets.

    Then again, I’m shocked that the NHL didn’t do it when they had the chance a couple years back.

    MLB is also arguably too big. But they’ve made some really dumb decisions with TV money, essentially killing off the Cubs, Braves, and White Sox as national teams — deeming their superstations national networks and thus divisible with all the teams — while priviledging the YES network and other local networks for giant megaplexes.

  18. tom says:

    @ superdestroyer

    Television reaches such a broader audience and brings in so much more money for sports these days than ticket sales. And I am not talking about having a few good teams. I am talking about having a few GREAT teams, several very good teams, more good teams. Compared this to just before Garnett’s trade to the Celtics when you had 1 or 2 great teams, 1 or 2 very good teams and a bunch of mediocre teams. Ratings aren’t lying. Sports bring in more viewers when there are several great teams battling it out.

    @ James Joyner

    Once you start contracting (or convincingly threatening to contract) teams you create a new dynamic. The big market teams who will always be back in it in a few years will take a very safe predictable route to being competitive. Smaller teams though will have huge incentives to gamble on new ways of running their teams. This dynamic of solid entrenched large companies doing certain things very well forcing upstarts to try to do something brilliantly to compete leads to tremendous amounts of innovation in economics. Revenue sharing encourages mediocrity and profit earning encourages meritocracy.

  19. sam says:

    There’s a corollary to the Bird Rule: upon completion of your career, you have to move back to French Lick.

  20. sam says:

    BTW, on sports and money:

    MARANA, Ariz. – Bubba Watson may have lost his semifinal match against Martin Kaymer on Saturday at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship but he does hold the distinction of sporting the field’s most expensive watch.

    A new sponsor gave Watson a watch worth $575,000, he said following his 1-up loss to Kaymer.

    When asked if he could tell time with it Watson replied, “No, but it looks really good.”

    You can see the “watch” on Bubba’s wrist at The Shag Bag.

  21. Nick Tummi says:

    A note, James, that San Jose is the 10th most populous city in the U.S.

    As the southern part of the San Francisco Bay Area, it’s in the 6th largest TV market in the country, with nearly 7.5 million viewers.

    It’s currently true that either San Francisco or Oakland (the other two cities in the Bay Area) have all of the major sports teams (NFL, NBA, MLB), leaving San Jose with only the NHL’s Sharks, this is a situation that’s fluid.

    It’s quite possible that by the end of this decade, both an NFL and an MLB team from one of the other Bay Area cities will migrate southward.

  22. James Joyner says:


    I stand corrected.

    Just as many “big cities” of yore are actually quite small now — DC comes readily to mind — there are some emerging big cities that most of us don’t think of as big.