Thursday, May 19, 2011

On league integrity and the nature of sports

At halftime of Tuesday night's Western Conference Final, the NBA held the draft lottery, in which Cleveland won the first pick and Minnesota won the second. Cleveland was represented on stage by Nick Gilbert, the 14-year-old son of owner Dan Gilbert; Nick suffers from Neurofibromatosis, a nerve disorder that causes tumors to grow in his body anywhere and anytime. Afterwards, Minnesota GM David Kahn said the following:
This league has a habit, and I am just going to say habit, of producing some pretty incredible story lines. Last year it was Abe Pollin's widow and this year it was a 14-year-old boy and the only thing we have in common is we have both been bar mitzvahed. We were done. I told Kevin: 'We're toast.' This is not happening for us and I was right.
Kaaahhnn! may or may not have been joking.

On PTI Wednesday, Tony Kornheiser said the following (the whole discussion starts around the 3:00 mark): "I have no idea if the lottery is fixed. . . . But if it's fixed, I'm 100 % for that. This is a closed corporation. If they want to go around and improve certain teams in certain way, I'm OK with that." Kornheiser viewed this as, essentially, a make-up call for Cleveland after "The Decision." Similarly, it was OK to reward the Wizards last year after the death of long-serving owner Abe Pollin. And, by implication, it was OK to reward the Knicks with Patrick Ewing in 1985, which lifted one of the league's signature franchises.

That cannot be right. The league sells itself as being engaged in open competition, results determined by luck (the lottery) or a combination of skill and luck (games and just about everything else). That, in truth, is the essence of sports and sports leagues. The league cannot surreptitiously control or manipulate that competition in any way. To do so flies in the face of what the league is promoting and what professional sport is supposed to be about. Plus, the logic of the argument cannot be limited to the lottery, but must extend to play on the court. Can the league now directly dictate game and playoff series outcomes (as opposed to indirectly, which the NBA already does, by controlling officiating assignments and giving officials "guidance" of how to call games)?

The notion of games and players being played completely above board is essential to the idea of sport and to getting fans to take sports seriously. And it was not always so. Prior to 1920, baseball was perceived as a step up from professional wrestling. The big shock in the Black Sox Scandal was not that the players had thrown the Series, but that it was the first time anyone had been caught. There were suspicions and rumors of a fix as early as the 1903 Series. And the NBA faced a genuine crisis following the officiating debacle that was the 2006 Finals, when fans raised genuine concerns about league manipulation.

I agree with Kornheiser in one respect--the NBA could dump the lottery altogether and establish a draft order based on arbitrary favoritism or a desire to help one team or another (the Chicago Bulls were assigned the first pick in the ABA Dispersal Draft in 1976 so they could draft Artis Gilmore). Just as the league could start pre-determining winners. But it has to be transparent and above board that this is how things are being done and this is why. And it no longer can sell itself as sport.