Not long ago, the NFL got their man. Curiously enough, the player they were going after was one of the faces of the league and the winningest quarterback of all time.
You see, the man they call Tom Brady had fiddled with some footballs prior to the AFC Championship Game back in 2015. No fan knew this prior to game time but apparently that sort of thing is frowned upon in the establishment. Mr. Brady asked a team assistant to release air from the footballs they were going to play the game with, deflating them for better grip. This would cause controversy that would go on for seasons and a black eye for the league heretofore dubbed as DeflateGate.
Football fans’ opinions on the scandal reached both ends of the spectrum: Brady-haters to this day call the man a cheater, others far less concerned about deflated balls wondered what was all the hullabaloo. The NFL, however, would not let this sin pass, eventually finding Brady guilty of tampering and suspending him four games at the beginning of the 2016 NFL season.
Brady and his Patriots, however, would have the last laugh as his team would win yet another Super Bowl, this time with the balls properly inflated to the pounds per square inch that the league required.
I always wondered why the league pressed on in its quest for Brady. One reader theorized, perhaps correctly, that the Brady manhunt was the league’s attempt to distract fans from the Kaepernick kneeling that created a whole different sort of controversy. The NFL could easily have left well enough alone and allowed what was not yet known as DeflateGate to ride off into the sunset. Instead the league ultimately reminded Brady who was boss… or at least who they thought was boss.
Today’s NBA is in a similar state of affairs. With all its primetime free agents landing on their teams du jour, it became clear this summer perhaps more than any other, and more than in any other league, than the players hold all the cards. The Association has frowned upon what’s destined to be called Collusion-Gate but that matters not as today’s superstar players barter with other superstar players about if they want to play together and where.
Unless they’re named Chris Paul, NBA players generally get their way.
I may be in the minority but I could give a flying leap about whether Tom Brady deflated a football (Andrew Luck played with that same football) or whether Kawhi Leonard talked to Paul George about playing together one fine day in L.A. Both make for a better game. As an NBA fan, I want to see the best possible basketball. If that means Kawhi playing alongside Paul George because they once talked about it, then why should I care if they gave it a nudge to make it happen?
For better or for worse, it’s the way the NBA has evolved. This year will be the first in ages where an NBA champion is not predetermined so how is it bad that players, rather than agents or owners, end up forging a new era? I’m as old school as they come but all those former NBAers complaining about this new breed joining forces by saying things like “I never wanted to join those guys. I wanted to beat them” obviously forgot about Charles Barkley heading to Phoenix or Clyde Drexler heading to Houston or Karl Malone and Gary Payton heading to L.A. I love Magic and Bird as much as the next guy but spare me the histrionics.
Another thing this off-season proved is that some players aren’t as powerful as we once thought. For example, we thought that players would jump at the opportunity to play with LeBron James and the Lakers; that was not the case. There is currently a generation gap between superstars that has created a new dynamic, a new rivalry. That too is healthy for the NBA.
While I have no problem with the Association creating ground rules for what can and cannot be done in fair play, I hardly feel the league wants to go full DeflateGate and do anything to tarnish what is a highly marketable image. Are players not supposed to talk to each other or even hint at the opportunity of what it would be like to play with one another? Thirty years down the road, we will remember the Miami Heat and Golden State Warriors as great teams. Does it make them lesser teams because their players conspired to be roster mates?
Things are the way they are because of the process. The nature of the game allows for this sort of maneuvering to happen more so than in any other sport. With a large salary cap ($109 mil for the 2019-20 season) and far fewer players on an NBA roster (15) than in Major League Baseball (25) or the NFL (53), even with exorbitant salaries, it’s far easier to mix and match chess pieces, especially considering the league constitutes a brotherhood of far fewer players who are more recognizable, and hence marketable than other leagues, only partially because they stand seven-feet tall.
I’m not suggesting the NBA let sleeping dogs lie. I just don’t think they should publicize it. They can meet behind closed doors and make the Players Union aware of their concerns which I’m sure they already have, all of this without the media knowing. If Kawhi Leonard and Paul George can keep a secret as to where they’re playing next, the league should be able to keep things clandestine about their concerns with collusion.
Most fans I know are excited about the wheeling and dealings that went on this summer. Few outside Oklahoma City hold any resentment. We are ready for this season to start to see how it all plays out. However, if Commissioner Silver decides to embark on a witch hunt, it can only serve to tarnish the reputation this league took so long to build.
If the Commissioner is wise, he’d heed my advice and leave well enough alone. Fans know that players collude. They’re friends. They get together and talk about business. Rarely will fans take the side of an owner over a player. That being said, we don’t need to be reminded that the players hold all the cards. The moment the commissioner starts making his most marketable assets out to be the bad guys, the sooner we’ll start reacting, or overreacting, to the unforgiveable sin that is collusion.