Last August, ESPN, in a move that would foreshadow the rest of its autumn, what with the layoffs controversy and the Jemele Hill controversy and a very dumb controversy about some poor broadcaster named Robert Lee, apologized.What were they apologizing for, this time? They were apologizing for this.
That, friends, is a mock auction in which various white ESPN personalities put players — most of them black, with their disembodied heads on sticks — up for “bid” by other white ESPN personalities. It was a theatrical fantasy-football auction, and it did not occur to anyone running the show that it might look to some people like a slave auction. But eventually ESPN backed off, saying, “We understand the optics could be portrayed as offensive, and we apologize.”
One suspects the network will find no need to issue a similar statement after Thursday’s NBA draft, held Thursday night at Barclays Center and broadcast live for the 39th consecutive season, but while the optics might not be so offensive, the underlying principles are still the same. In fact, they’re worse, since this isn’t a fantasy auction but a real one. A collection of players, mostly black, will be paraded around for a bunch of owners, almost entirely white, who will pay for new employees’ services with contracts that assure the employee will be under the team’s control, at set amounts, for multiple years, with the employee having no say in where he peddles his wares or for whom he does it. Heck, at least in the fake fantasy football auction, their virtual doppelgängers got to go to the highest bidder. On Thursday night, someone is going to have to go to Sacramento.
Racial politics and the disaster of Vlade Divac as Kings GM aside, the NBA draft is among the most retrograde labor practices in American life, period. And the worst part is: Fans love it. The draft is one of the most dazzling nights on the NBA calendar, the night where every team’s wonkish front office gets to lay down their wonkish plans and every fresh-faced rookie gets to put on his schnazziest suit and do a dress rehearsal for the nightly fashion show of NBA players walking to the locker room before the game. It is regularly one of the highest-rated shows on ESPN’s schedule, a consistent meme generator (remember the crying Porzingis kid?) and considered by those within the game as the most important night on the calendar, the night when all the analytics and experience and acumen and front-office brain power culminates in resting an entire NBA organization’s future on the shoulders of a 19-year-old receiving the first real paycheck of his life. Anything seems possible. But it’s just about the most un-American way imaginable to usher in a new workforce.
The idea that the NBA draft — in which young men with an extremely rare skill worth tens of millions of dollars on the open market are stripped of all autonomy of choice about where they’ll work and how much they’ll get paid to do it — is immoral and backwards has been growing gathering steam in recent years. Media outlets as varied as Time and Deadspin have called for drafts to be abolished; The Wall Street Journal called drafts “scams” way back in 2013; even ABC News, which airs the freaking NBA finals, called for the abolishment of the NBA Draft last September. (Tellingly, that piece was written by an ESPN writer but published on ABC News, not ESPN.) The great joke of the supposed free market mavens that are professional sports owners is that they operate in a totally closed market: the league has a monopoly on high-end talent, no new teams are coming in to challenge the existing ones, and players are bound by really restrictive labor agreements (which pay well by almost any standard but “compared to how much money they make for their owners”). People in professional sports are always talking about “competitive balance.” Anywhere but in sports, the phrase would probably mean either an anti-monopolistic system, or one in which talent was able to freely negotiate, or both. In sports, the owners write socialist, everyone’s-well-being-is-protected bylaws for themselves while insisting the rest of us live under the cruel vagaries of capitalism — such as when NFL owners void a contract right after a player gets injured because they can.
Just imagine if the tables were turned at the draft: All 30 NBA owners were told they could own a team, but each team’s owner would be chosen by players and fans (sorry Jim Dolan, you may be a New Yorker, but Utah just drafted you). That’s where you live now, and that’s where you have to make your money. That seems absurd (the idea of Jim Dolan living in Salt Lake City is inherently amusing) but that’s exactly the choice the NBA, and the NFL, and Major League Baseball, and every other major North American sports league foists upon the youngest and most vulnerable members of its labor force. It means many — maybe most — of the league’s most exciting young talent is squandered on teams that are poorly prepared to showcase and properly develop them, as if TV’s best showrunners were shipped out to local access, just for the sake of “competitive balance.” And it doesn’t even make the league more equal and fair! All it does is give the owners more control. As activist sportswriter Patrick Hruby put it, “If the human resources department of your company came up with the idea of a draft, they’d be fired on the spot.” And yet it’s the signature NBA event, the brightest night of the year.
This might even make a little more sense in the NFL, or at least it would be more intellectually consistent: After all, the NFL makes a habit of treating its players like cattle, disposable meat for the slaughter, so why should the draft be any different? But the NBA, the NBA is the league that is constantly boasting about its players’ autonomy, about how players run the league, about how great a relationship it has with its labor union (greatly improved in recent years with NBAPA head Michele Roberts, who at first looked like she might gleefully, and perhaps justifiably, burn the whole league down. This is a league where LeBron James can create a superteam wherever he goes and call the president “U bum” on Twitter and grow only more powerful in the process. This is the rare league where more owners give to progressive causes than conservative ones, the one where coaches Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr have been blasting President Trump for years, the one where the championship team doesn’t even consider going to the White House after they win the NBA finals. This is the league that’s supposedly on the players’ side … on the side of justice.
But their fundamental labor dispersal event, the showcase night for the whole league, sits on this shaky foundation of this inherently un-American labor practice. It is worth noting that the NBA probably has the least restrictive draft, in that players are only under team control for three years, but even that comes with strings attached; a star player can leave after three years, but only if he wants to make less money. Fans have grown more comfortable with player autonomy on the whole; no one’s going to blame LeBron James if he leaves Cleveland this off-season, and in past years, Kawhi Leonard would be hammered a lot more for trying to force a trade out of San Antonio than he is being right now. But the draft remains this archaic construct, this way to control labor and boost up teams who either can’t or won’t pay market prices for talent. It’s the engine that makes the league run.
So do enjoy the fun outfits on Thursday night, and the inevitable booing of Knicks fans whenever they make their pick, and the occasional emotional moments when a teenager achieves his lifelong dream of making it to the NBA. The draft is as part of NBA lore as the NBA finals themselves at this point. But don’t kid yourself. This is the allocation of powerless resources at discounted rates to powerful people who have created their own financial ecosystem that benefits only them. Maybe the NBA is America’s pastime after all.
Will Leitch’s Games column runs every week. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.