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The Morality of Professional Sports

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A semi-discouraged reader asks whether being an NBA contributes to societal ills. We give an honest and surprising answer.

NBA: All Star Saturday Night Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Professional sports bring joy and purpose into millions of lives across the globe. They also have a well-documented shadow side, rife with corruption and exploitation. In today’s unusual Blazer’s Edge Mailbag, reader Joshua lays out some of the possible pitfalls of sport and inquires about the morality of it all. It’s a near-impossible conundrum, but one ripe for discussion. Let’s see if we can sort it out.

Hi Dave -

I wanted to get your opinion on a question that has been bothering me for a while and that you might really have some perspective on: Is the NBA moral? Is being an NBA fan moral?

Here are the things that make me worry about being an NBA fan:

1. The salaries are out of whack. A generation ago, top players made $1 million plus, and that was one thing. Now they're making over $30 million in salary, and Kevin Durant is being called "selfless" for accepting a measly $25 million. Last summer, one team even signed two bench players for $17 million each. (Not saying which one.)

From a pure capitalism point of view, sure, the players are generating a lot of revenue with their talents and it's good that they get a fair share of it rather than be exploited. However, look at it this way: Paul Millsap's salary could house and feed a thousand families. The whole National Endowment for the Arts is $150 million a year -- that's just two LeBrons -- and Washington politicians are moaning about how we can't afford that. At a time when inequality has grown so much and there is so much need, we are paying people literally a fortune to do a thing that fundamentally doesn't matter. In other words, as a society, we are making bizarre choices about what's important.

You’re starting in an economic field more than a moral one. I understand the two intersect at some level, but the example of Arts vs. Double LeBron doesn’t carry us to that point.

Many other fields (and more than a few other people) generate spectacular income for their best and brightest. Singling out basketball as a particular problem as opposed to movies or the stock market is a moral stance in itself...an unfair one. Follow the dollar you spend long enough and it’s going to fall into the hands of a conglomeration, cartel, or individual that makes an insane amount of money. Divesting yourself of all such interests would prevent you from consuming gas, salad dressing, and mass entertainment at minimum. It’d also preclude you from accessing search engines, social media, and your own retirement account. If you’re not going to commit to that level of divestment—which is virtually impossible—taking a stand on NBA players getting paid would inconsistent.

You’re also glossing over the reality of compensation in the NBA. Because of collective bargaining, players are guaranteed a percentage of league income. If two parties are slated to make “50% of X” apiece, what determines the final amount they actually get paid? The critical factor isn’t the 50% (at least after the negotiations are complete), it’s whatever makes up the “X”. If the moral issue here is how much players are making, you can’t blame the players, blame the “X”.

Players make far more money today than they did two decades ago because television contracts have increased substantially. If the new number triggers a moral objection, the proper target is the television networks ponying up that money, not the athletes receiving it.

As you know, that money is not going to disappear if it doesn’t go to the players, nor will it be used to endow arts or any other cultural endeavor. It’ll go to the owners instead. Is paying money to owners more moral than paying it to players?

But even if we put all that aside, answer this: If adequate compensation is morally justifiable and too much compensation is morally repugnant, where is the line between the two? Which exact dollar in the paycheck turns good into evil? It’s an impossible question. But if we can’t identify and defend that line, we have no case. Having the vague feeling that certain people are making too much is common, even understandable, but feelings and opinions make for tricky morality.

I suspect the only moral argument to be made here is that all compensation is problematic in some ways and a blessing in others. Surplus (or lack) of compensation intensifies both extremes, but that doesn’t mean that the problems are eliminated in the middle ground. They’re just covered better.

2. I'm really worried about the Hoop Dreams effect -- that is, what incentives we create for children who think they're going to be basketball stars. Basketball is basically a lottery in which 30 people spend a fake year in college and then hit the jackpot, while thousands lose. That's thousands of 9-10-11-12-year-old children -- who really are not at an age where they're equipped to make good life decisions -- who would be better counseled to forget about basketball and just do their homework and become accountants or something.

However – and maybe you've noticed this yourself – accounting is not glamorous, while basketball is glamorous. The NBA makes it glamorous. We as fans pour money and attention and adulation into it, making it glamorous.

I’m hardly an expert on this. Take the following with a grain of salt.

Dreams can be helpful, in my experience. Few of us grow up to be what we imagined when we were young. But imagining gives us daring, perseverance, and the potential for happiness even if that happiness ends up looking different than we thought it would. The most important part of dreaming is learning how to dream, regardless of outcome.

Pursuing dreams also provides young folks connections that they wouldn’t make otherwise. How many kids who had no chance of making the NBA still learned from coaches they met playing middle school ball? How many Michael Jordan conversations happened around a lunchroom table, binding people together and creating friendships. How much of that is still going on now, among all of us?

And hey, all of those “boring” accountants probably learned what success meant in part because of sports. They may not be an NBA All-Star but they could rank as the GOAT of CPA’s, dazzling with their ledger-balancing crossover skills.

Pride and work ethic start with inspiration, which often trickles down from a high-profile field into more normal pursuits. Removing the original inspiration won’t heighten passion for other endeavors; it might dim them.

Speaking of, if we’re concerned about segments of the population not having enough dreams to fulfill, it seems like taking away one would be a step in the wrong direction rather than a corrective measure.

3. Merchandising is terribly exploitative. Last week I was in a drug store and the cashiers were talking about how they bought / had to buy $150, $300 or $500 worth of sneakers for their kids. This has shocked me since the invention of Air Jordans. The result of all this merchandising is to make hypermillionaires (as well as Nike) rich off the backs of people...who "need" sneakers and jerseys. (God bless Stephon Marbury, at least, for trying to do something that didn't exploit the fans.)

You can say that buying jerseys and sneakers is all part of the fun – I'm sure many people will. But what really, really put me off of basketball players who do endorsements was Michael Jordan doing ads for Coke and McDonald's. He was using the blind adulation people had for him, for his image, to sell them, literally, garbage and poison to put into their bodies. He was using his status as probably the world's fittest person to make people diabetic and still think that was the way to "be like Mike." And other players have carried this on.

I won’t defend merchandising. In America, if something is public it’s likely being sold in one way or another. That’s true of athletes and everything they wear, use, or pass by.

I will say that many athletes also use their platform for charitable or community-oriented projects. That doesn’t cancel out the issues with rampant merchandising but it broadens the story.

I’ll also say that if we’re going to take issue with merchandising, we need to swallow the whole pill. The entire league is a commodity. Your loyalty and passion to a franchise are leveraged to sell tickets and jerseys. You’re never told the complete truth about your team; you’re “sold to” instead. Viewing things logically, you should abandon your sports team immediately. The whole construct is a lie.

Then again, most of us will admit that there’s value in gathering around a team even so. It brings pleasure, creates community, inspires hope. If this is so of your chosen commodity—an NBA team—and you’re perfectly OK accepting the lies and baggage that come along with the experience, is it fair to say that other communities can’t gather around their chosen commodity? If you’re balking at $150 sneakers, consider how much an NBA game costs for a family of four...or your League Pass or Cable subscription to watch same. Even if it’s so much expensive crap, you have the right to indulge. So should others. That’s a moral stance too.

4. There are other issues, like public funding for arenas, but I'll just let the three points above stand for themselves.

All of this has made me start to feel a real moral burden about my contribution to supporting this system. A few times I have posted this line of thinking in BE comments or on social media, and I get almost no agreement – in fact, almost nobody understands what I'm even talking about. But I think when you look at basketball's role in society, you really have to be troubled.

So Dave, your day job is to think about moral issues and the big picture, at least some of the time. What do you think? Can we enjoy NBA basketball and not be complicit in a system that is destructive in more ways than it is positive?

Short answer: nope. It’s impossible to follow the NBA without being complicit in plenty of icky things. But when is this not true? Right now you’re sucking up air from the atmosphere and expelling methane back into it. You know someone in Botswana needs that air, right? You’re living in a house made out of trees that could have recycled that air too. They died so you have a wall to hang pictures on. That house might have been built by someone who wanted to be a professional athlete but had his dreams crushed. If so, he’s had a far bigger effect on your life than some guy in underwear bouncing an orange ball, but he got paid less for constructing your life-saving shelter than an NBA player will get in per diem this season.

I’m not saying that examining these things is wrong. Morality is important. But the idea that we can live without negative complicity is conceit. Nothing is perfect, especially us. We all have the responsibility to correct and compensate for our complicit existence as much as possible. Once that’s done, we’re pretty much left with one question: not whether we’re borrowing from the world and our neighbors (we can’t avoid it) but to what end?

The real issue here isn’t whether any of us continue to be NBA fans or not. We can choose. But either way, we’re going to end up doing something that contributes to the world’s imperfection. Yet imperfect things can also lead to goodness. Anyone who’s participated in any kind of community—from the smallest family units to the largest societal gatherings—can tell you that. The moral question isn’t whether you follow professional basketball, but why and how and for whom?

If you’re doing this because you want to be Blazers Bro—feeling superior and lobbing insults at other fans, reducing the entire process to an extension of your ego—I’d say you were probably exploiting the world twice...once through all the inherent faults in the sports system and a second time by wrecking the community around you. Then again, I’d suspect that you’d do that with your relationships anyway, even if the NBA folded tomorrow. Professional basketball is a convenient prop, an environment which gives you permission to spread toxicity and selfishness. The benefits and faults of the NBA hardly matter, the real problem is you.

But if you’re doing this because it brings joy, provides relaxation or inspiration, makes you feel like you belong, connects you with something bigger than yourself, brings you together with people around you, then even the systemic imperfections get turned to good...at least in your circle, and probably in the circles of the people around you. The beauty of the experience ends up throwing the bad parts in sharper relief, giving us more reason to address them, not less. Once again, the benefits and faults of the system aren’t the whole story. We grow as we learn to admit, discuss, and perhaps compensate for our shortcomings rather than pretending we can find a place where they don’t exist.

Being an NBA fan is not moral, but neither is NOT being an NBA fan. Morality cannot be found inside any institution or person. Instead it happens in the space between us, showing through as we fill that space with our imperfections, then come together to help goodness win out anyway.

Thanks for the questions, Joshua! Everyone else, keep those Mailbag submissions coming to blazersub@gmail.com!

—Dave / blazersub@gmail.com / @Blazersedge / @DaveDeckard