It’s Only Business: Neoliberalism and the National Basketball Association

Following a hotly contested NBA Finals Game Six, which saw the Golden State Warriors’ star guard Stephen Curry ejected for throwing his mouthpiece into the stands, Curry’s wife, Ayesha, wrote several controversial tweets expressing her displeasure about how the game was officiated. “I’ve lost all respect sorry this is absolutely rigged for money,” Ayesha Curry wrote, “Or ratings not sure which.” Though she deleted the tweet and explained that she had written it out of frustration with the treatment of her father by Cavaliers security, Curry’s tweet expressed a widespread rumor whispered on NBA message boards and joked about between friends after a few beers that the 2016 NBA playoffs have been officiated to keep series competitive, ensuring series last longer, and meaning more money for sponsors, television providers, and league owners.

Whispers that the 2016 playoffs were rigged began in Game Three of the Western Conference Finals when Warriors forward Draymond Green kicked Oklahoma City Thunder center Stephen Adams in the groin. Green received a flagrant 1 foul on the play and, though it was upgraded to a flagrant 2 foul upon league review, did not receive a suspension for Game Four. Rumors swirled that the reason Green was not suspended for Game Four was because, with the Warriors down 2-1 and Green playing such a pivotal role as a rebounder and defender, his absence would ensure a Thunder victory and, theoretically, a short series.

Cries of conspiracy grew louder after Game Four of the NBA Finals when Draymond Green was suspended for flagrant foul accumulation after a swipe at the groin of Cleveland Cavaliers’ superstar LeBron James. At the time, Golden State led the series 3-1, most of the games had been blowouts, and as the series moved back to the Bay Area for a close out Game 5 (the Warriors had only lost two games at home all year) it appeared a five game series was in the offingNBA Money. With heroic performances by James and Kyrie Irving, the Cavs won in Oakland and now the series is moving to a Game Seven. Even mainstream journalists like ESPN’s Michael Wilbon questioned whether the NBA suspended Green to make the series more competitive.

Accusations of league tampering are nothing new. In inaugural draft lottery, the NBA was accused of using a cold envelope to guarantee the New York Knicks would receive the first overall draft pick – which would mean the rights to draft Georgetown University superstar Patrick Ewing. NBA Commissioner David Stern was said to have rigged the lottery for New York because the city was the league’s largest market and the selection of Ewing would immediately make them a playoff contender. Similarly, in the 2002 Western Conference Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and Sacramento Kings, a series a bad refereeing decisions allowed the Lakers to erase a 3-2 series deficit to win in overtime of Game Seven. A massive free throw disparity (40-25 Lakers) and the fouling out of Kings’ big men Vlade Divacs and Scot Pollard helped the Lakers win a close Game Six. Suspicions of impropriety were seemingly confirmed in 2007 when Tim Donagy, one of the referees for the game, plead guilty to betting on games he officiated and said he point shaved by calling phantom fouls on teams he was betting against. While David Stern claimed Donagy was a lone wolf and that his calls did not impact the results of games, Donagy did serve over two years in prison for crimes related to illegal gambling.

Yet, what separates charges of conspiracy during the 2016 playoffs compared to earlier accusations during the David Stern period is that the 2016 conspiracies are not “for” any particular team or player, but, instead, for the league as a business. In one sense this points to the NBA’s national viewership. With stars like Curry, LeBron, and Kevin Durant attracting national audiences, it is no longer necessary to have big market teams like the Knicks and Lakers reach the Finals to attract large viewerships. NBA Finals Game One set a league record with over 19 million viewers, despite two mid-market teams vying for the title. Game Six set the record once again with over 20.7 million viewers. The evidence suggests that Game Seven will set the viewership record even higher on Sunday. What Ayesha Curry is claiming is supported by the viewership numbers: it is in the NBA’s best business interest to extend the 2016 Finals for as many games as possible.

All the 2016 conspiracy talk brings into relief a conflict for the NBA and its fans – balancing the league as a business with the sanctity of free competition in professional sports. The NBA wants to make the most money it can, but it is constrained by the sports ethics of non-interference into free competition. If too many fans believe the NBA is fixed it will likely lose its audience and cease to be a successful business. Yet, as Americans living in a capitalist society know all too well, when business interests and the public interest clash it is usually business that wins out. The American university, which was once thought to value education and freedom of thought over all, has gradually succumbed to operating like a business cutting positions and programs which are not profitable or thought to have instrumental value. Public transport has been privatized in many major American cities and those companies have increased fares to the point that it is a hardship for many riders. Why should sports be exempt from these economic pressures when civic institutions like education and transportation have already succumbed?

So why should the values of free competition in professional sports be any different? As the subtle market-logic of neoliberalism creeps deeper into American institutions it is an open question if any professional sphere exists outside of profit-making. While accusations of the NBA putting profits over competition have frustrated Ayesha Curry and Thunder fans, the vast majority of the American public is excited by the opportunity for more basketball. And it’s it the cardinal rule of American capitalism that more is always better?

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