On Tuesday evening, the Cleveland Cavaliers received their championship rings and watched their 2016 NBA Champions banner rise to the rafters at Quicken Loans Arena. After the festivities, the Cavs took to the hard court to take on the New York Knicks. Hours later, the Golden State Warriors, with their new acquisition, the former league MVP Kevin Durant, tipped off against the now Tim Duncan-less San Antonio Spurs. (The Utah Jazz also took on the Portland Trail Blazers to open up the season). These star-studded games opened up the 2016-2017 National Basketball Association (NBA) season.
For years (if not decades), the NBA has attempted to recover from the loss of super stars of the 1980s and 1990s. When Michael Jordan retired (from the Bulls, not the Wizards), the NBA was left with a void. But, recently, TV ratings are up. New stars and “super teams” have created excitement. The players recently struck a new CBA which has resulted in skyrocketing salaries (and not just for the Steph Curry’s of the world). Overall, the NBA has grown into one of the most popular team sport organizations in the United States. It has also transformed into a leading international sport phenomenon, as hundreds of international players play in the league and games are broadcast across the world. According to Forbes, the NBA will eventually overtake the National Football League in popularity (and the decreasing NFL TV ratings this year points to that).
This roundtable seeks to take a deeper look into this cultural phenomenon. Five sport scholars consider the state of the NBA in the twenty-first century. Cat Ariail, Yago Colás, Aram Goudsouzian, Louis Moore, and Alison Wrynn all have written on basketball or sport in American and international culture. In the remainder of this post, they respond to questions on the historical, contemporary, and future prospects of the league and sport.
How do you view the NBA? (As a sport, business, entertainment, etc.; what is your personal stake in the league?) And why?
In my approach to sport history, I privilege athletes as the agents of sport’s historical significance. It seems obvious to state that sports would not exist without athletes. Yet, sport is often analyzed from an institutional-level, where material and ideological structures determine significance. Today’s NBA, however, best exemplifies how athletes are the agenetic forces in sport. The NBA is the only sport I closely follow as a fan. And the reason I do so is because of the players. The players drive the NBA as a sport, as entertainment, and as a business. For example, the 2011 collective bargaining agreement (CBA) was designed in reaction to LeBron James’s decision to join the Miami Heat. Owners aimed to discourage players from choosing to “take their talents” to other franchises and prevent the formation of additional so-called “super teams.” Yet, the intervening five years have produced an unprecedented level of player movement, in addition to the super-est “super team” in Golden State.
These player peregrinations have advanced the league as a sport, entertainment product, and business. The decision of James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh to join forces in Miami resulted in improved basketball strategies. While the Heat at times appeared as unbeatable force, the San Antonio Spurs eventually proved them beatable. The Durant-infused Warriors will inspire similar adjustments. Such on-court developments enhance the NBA as an entertainment product, as evinced by the record television deal the league inked in 2015.
The announcement that league and players’ association expect to agree to a new, slightly-amended CBA before the year’s end is an implicit recognition of the success of a player-driven league. Players creatively navigated the current CBA in ways not imagined by the owners, taking control of their fate and the fate of the league. Through on court ability and off court decisions, players make and re-make the NBA. In sum, I love the NBA, both as a fan and scholar, because of player power.
As a scholar, I primarily view the NBA as a generator of stories, which is to say as a cultural phenomenon. These stories, ostensibly about basketball play and players, also shape and are shaped by and therefore speak to broader cultural, moral, and social issues in America and, indeed, the world. But I also understand that the phenomena of both NBA play and its cultural accompaniments are very much shaped by the fact that they unfold within and against the parameters set by the League’s operation within the commercial space of the entertainment industry, not to mention other related industries such as apparel manufacturing.
Personally, however, as a lifelong player and lover of the sport, I watch basketball primarily as a mesmerizing exhibition of aesthetic creativity and form; a demonstration of what a human body can do. In my work, I try to connect these two views, using the latter approach as a kind of wedge or lever by which to gain traction on and disrupt some of those narratives that I believe confine our perceptions of NBA players within sometimes harmful existing moral presuppositions and cultural and social stereotypes.
I think of the NBA as fun. The sport has never been more entertaining to watch, and the team concept – both offensively and defensively – is stronger than ever. We will look back on this as a golden age, in terms of basketball aesthetics. Of course, it is also a global business, and a forum for issues that shape our national culture, and a lot of other things. But it would not mean anything if it wasn’t so fun.
I think it’s all of the above. I’ve been watching my whole life, and still enjoy watching games, especially those featuring the Cavs and Warriors. I used to be a big Dominique Wilkins fan, and thus an Atlanta Hawks fan, but once the team traded him, I was done and became a free agent. For now, I’ll root for LeBron, as well as the Detroit Pistons, since I get their games on Fox Sports.
I still see the NBA as a sport—but I know that it is at its core an entertainment business—especially during the regular season.
On a personal level, I have been a fan of the Boston Celtics for more than 40 years (I started at a VERY young age). Growing up in Boston in the 1960s, the Celtics were the standard of success in the NBA as well as for the other Boston based teams who could never seem to measure up (except for the Bruins).
I follow the NBA a lot less now—I live in Los Angeles (where it’s all Lakers—and now Clippers—all the time!) and have seen a few Celtics/Clippers games at Staples Center—but I do make time to follow the playoffs. The regular season is just too darn long!
What storyline(s) are you paying most attention to this year (on or off the court)?
As an Atlanta Hawks partisan, I am highly interested in whether Dwight Howard successfully can matriculate in “Hawks University” and Coach Bud can institute a new curriculum that best utilizes Howard’s skill set. Similar to the Hawks, multiple teams around the league present intriguing roster and strategy combinations that could be stunning successes or dull disappointments – Tom Thibodeau and the young Wolves, the Chicago Bulls’ seemingly incongruous trio, D’Antoni ball in Houston, the Russell Westbrook-led Thunder, and more. Of course, the on-court excitement that these teams may inspire pales in comparison to the historic collection of talent in Golden State.
However, I am most interested in LeBron James. Despite the Golden State megalith, I believe James still defines the league. As I discussed above, the autonomy of NBA players interests me as a fan and scholar; James has established the template for modern player autonomy. Not only has he successfully exercised material control of his career (through the structures of his contracts and front-office influence), but he also has sought control of his career narrative. James has attempted to pre-mediate the meaning of his career choices. He has demonstrated a continually-refining sense of himself as an athletic figure, as evinced by comparing his clumsy “Decision” television special to his crafted “I’m Coming Home” letter to Cleveland. By delivering an improbable title to Cleveland last season, James seemingly has fulfilled the narrative he scripted.
So, what is his next act? I expect James to coast through the regular season, gladly allowing the Warriors to suffer fan and media scrutiny while preserving his energy for another playoff run. But I also would not be shocked if James more actively exerted his basketball will, positioning himself as a leading MVP candidate and constantly reminding the league that the path to a title still goes through him. The fact that such a choice exists proves the power of James. The story of the 2016-17 NBA season remains his story to write.
Perhaps the storyline that most interests me this year in terms of on court action involves what I hope will be a finals rematch between the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors, coming off a record setting regular season performance that featured the revolutionary talent of Steph Curry, suffered what looked like a bit of a melt down in the 2016 Finals, squandering a 3-1 lead and losing the final game on their home court. But this year they have added one of my favorite individual players, Kevin Durant, to their roster and so look to be the prohibitive favorites to reclaim the title. On the other side, I’m interested to see if LeBron James, entering what’s likely to be the final years of his historic career, can continue to excel and play—as he did in the finals—as though he knows he is the world’s best player, not to mention galvanize the talents of his teammates.
Off the court, I’m interested in seeing how the #blacklivesmatter national anthem protests that have swept the football landscape this fall play out in the frequently more politically progressive culture of the NBA.
I am fascinated by how the upcoming season will carry the narrative of racial protest. The last few years have demystified the protest of modern black athletes, to some degree, and the NBA’s stars are not only more visible, but also less vulnerable to a backlash than athletes in other professional sports. Will the culture of athletic protest flower, or will it slowly wither? It has a huge impact on the nation’s larger racial conversation.
First, I want to see what the players are going to do about social justice. The Big 4 (Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, and Carmelo Anthony) came out strong at the ESPYs, and Carmelo has been a positive voice, but the recent statements from the league makes it clear that the players and the league understand they have a TV contract coming up so they don’t want to lose all the money. I think the ratings from the NFL scared the players off to something more visual. But they say they are working behind the scenes, so we will wait and see. But I don’t think it has to be an either or thing. Bill Russell went to Mississippi and also marched in Boston to integrate schools. There was nothing behind the scenes about that.
Second, I want to see what the Warriors do. They are going to be fun to watch, but I hope they don’t take the villain role to seriously. That’s not in them, and they play it bad. Also, I think they’re going to get killed on the boards, so I want to see if their O, can overcome their size.
The Derrick Rose trial—the notion that players are “taught” in rookie seminars about how to avoid a paternity claim, rather than how to treat women (and men) with dignity and respect is appalling. Will the NBA just move on after the trial and make this a non-story as quickly as possible? Will fans cheer for Rose as if nothing happened?
Ongoing activism during the National Anthem by players and coaches (and fans). What will be the reaction in the arenas?
On a much more trivial level: Will the Celtics get back to the NBA finals!!
Compared to other American sports, where do you see the NBA in terms of its global appeal?
I believe the NBA far exceeds other U.S. pro sports leagues in its global appeal. But I think NBA as a global brand is shifting. Former commissioner David Stern prioritized Asia, particularly China, for NBA brand expansion. Kobe Bryant emerged as the most visible and beloved NBA star on the Asian continent. In concert with the league and Nike, Bryant strategically expanded his, and the league’s, global footprint. The retirements of Stern and Bryant, along with the decreased consumer power of China, however, have weakened the NBA’s institutional interest in Asia.
The NBA is now a more organic global brand. Rather than strategically importing the NBA to specific locales, social media has permitted potential basketball fans from around the globe to follow the league, most especially through the social media accounts of popular players. In turn, players can increase their personal global appeal through making more direct connections with fans through various platforms. The increasing number of promising international players further facilitates this process. The organic character of the NBA’s international appeal should allow the league’s global popularity to continue to increase and expand.
It seems to me that the NBA is unmatched among the big four American sports in its global appeal. Not only does it feature many international players from all part of the globe, but more and more these players are key pieces of rosters. While some observers have in the past tended to see these international players (initially frequently white) as ambassadors for a “right way to play” the sport that had been abandoned by America’s “hip hop generation” of black basketball players, I believe this narrative has largely lost its grip on most careful followers of the league’s action. I find, therefore, that the increasing mix and variety of players and styles of play to be a heartening challenge to some of the most deeply rooted and long standing of the confining stereotypes that have marked basketball culture in its 125 year history.
The NBA is light years ahead of any other major American sports league in terms of global marketing. The league’s popularity stems not only from its charismatic and easily recognizable stars, as well as the game’s relative simplicity and beauty, but also because Americans consciously exported basketball throughout much of the twentieth century. Missionaries spread the game around the world, including Asia; Red Auerbach ran basketball clinics with Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, and other NBA superstars behind the Iron Curtain; Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Oscar Robertson took State Department tours through Africa. Basketball has a foundation of players, coaches, and fans that is the envy of the NFL or MLB.
A close second behind soccer.
The NBA, along with the NHL, among North American based sports leagues, has a great deal of global appeal, something they have cultivated, along with their marketing partners, very carefully. The NBA has a much greater reach into Asia—however, the strength of FIFA and UEFA are still much greater internationally.
If you were NBA Commissioner, what would you do to improve the league/sport?
In order to improve the league’s reputation for posterity, I would establish and enforce a clear and consistent policy for addressing players who have committed domestic violence or sexual assault. The recent cases of Darren Collison and Derrick Rose illuminate the league’s incompetency in regard to these matters. In contemporary sport culture, the NFL is most associated with domestic violence and sexual assault. The NBA has largely avoided public scrutiny for its policies, as it uncritically is assumed to be better than the NFL. Yet, close consideration suggests otherwise. In the immediate aftermath of the exposure of the Ray Rice video, the NBA swiftly and stringently punished Jeffrey Taylor, a marginal, second-year player for the Charlotte Hornets, suspending him for twenty-four games after he plead guilty to misdemeanor assault. Adam Silver garnered praise for his decisiveness, even though the length of Taylor’s suspension violated the terms of the CBA. With domestic violence and sexual assault no longer in the national spotlight, Silver’s approach has shifted.
The situation of the Kings’ Darren Collision resembles that of Taylor, yet Collison received only an eight-game suspension. While not a star, Collision is Sacramento’s starting point guard, with his presence necessary to the hoped-for success of a team that happens to be moving into a new arena. The league also did not comment on new-New York Knick Derrick Rose’s recently-concluded civil rape trial (Rose was found not liable). The NBA’s lax approach to these recent incidences suggests political and commercial expediency rather than commitment to addressing adequately and fairly accusations of domestic violence or sexual assault represents the league’s priority. Despite the NBA’s better reputation, Silver is just as inconsistent and autocratic as Roger Goodell.
I recently questioned the progressive proclivities of the NBA on issues of racial justice. Such skepticism also applies to matters of gender and sex. However, with the impending renegotiation of the CBA, the league and players’ association have the opportunity make real the league’s progressive reputation by agreeing upon a strong, clear, and fair domestic violence and sexual assault policy.
This is a tough one. I think the Silver has actually done well in what I imagine is a very challenging job, certainly one that I could not do well. Because of my emotional and political investment in players as the creative competitive and cultural heart of the sport, I would like to see any and all initiatives that expand the players’ room to maneuver as autonomous agents of basketball play and culture. But I’m afraid I don’t have any specific ideas in that regard other than to say that if he asked me, I’d advise Adam Silver to follow the players wherever they are looking to push the game and its culture.
I would allow teams to decline a foul, the same way that a football team can decline a penalty. So instead of shooting free throws, a team could inbound from half-court with a fresh 24-second shot clock. This would reduce end-of-game fouling and “Hack-a-Shaq” strategies, forcing teams to gamble for turnovers when behind, while speeding up the game.
Also, more t-shirt cannons.
A few things.
First, since I live in the eastern time zone, I want the Warriors to play no later than 9 EST. when they start at 10:30, I have to go to sleep by half time.
Second, contraction. Get rid of some teams. There are not enough good players to have that many teams. Instead of making teams spend tax player dollars, get rid of some franchises, and an extra roster spot on each team, and then let the others go to the NBADL.
Shorter regular season.
Better health care for retired players.
Better concussion protocols.
Season long suspension for first instance of domestic violence; lifetime ban for the second.
Same punishments for weapons violations (including the bringing of firearms into the workplace).
Cat Ariailis a PhD candidate in the Department of History of the University of Miami. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Aram Goudsouzian is the Department Chair of the History Department at the University of Memphis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Louis Moore is an Associate Professor of History at Grand Valley State University. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Alison Wrynn is a Professor of Kinesiology and the Director of Undergraduate Studies & General Education at the California State University, Fullerton. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Yago Colás is an Associate Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan. He can be reached at email@example.com.