The NBA Free Agent Double Standard Debate… NBA v. the First Amendment

Read the opposing arguments from Bleacher Fan.

Last time I checked the First Amendment still provided for freedom of speech in America. That is unless commissioner Stalin – excuse me, I meant commissioner Stern – has his way.

The NBA currently maintains the mother of all double standards in the way it restricts comments players and executives make about signing new players. While players can suggest, infer, and generally run their mouths off about whatever they want, coaches and front office staff are prohibited from comments that speculate about the future intentions of players, in order to prevent tampering.

For starters, tampering is really the wrong word to describe the rule anyways. As Ross Lipschultz of points out, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term tampering actually means: “To try to deal, or enter into clandestine dealings with, (a person)… often with the connotation of meddling or interfering improperly with a person.” Public statements of interest in a player are anything BUT clandestine or secretive. And as far as meddling and interfering go, when was the last time a star actually signed with a team simply because a coach or player suggested it in an interview?

My competition for this debate, Bleacher Fan, agrees that this double standard has got to go, but he is misguided in his belief of how the NBA should go about eliminating its currently hypocritical policy. He thinks that instead of doing away with the ineffective rule altogether it should be universally applied to all NBA entities (i.e. players, coaches, general managers, owners, etc.), which makes him “wronger than a fanny-pack on a fat man!”

Just for kicks, let’s say that Bleacher Fan is right (which he isn’t), and commissioner Stern decides to apply this rule to EVERYONE in basketball. To what extent can the NBA actually enforce such a gag order? Obviously public statements regarding free agents and the like would be out, but where would they draw line be drawn?

NBA officials cannot actually think they can effectively monitor ever player’s statement both public and private. In today’s technological society, that means scrutinizing Tweets, Facebook posts, Web site updates, and more – not to mention any leaked emails or text messages. I cannot even imagine the unnecessary bureaucracy that a universal application of this flawed rule would create. The league would surely be so busy investigating allegations that one of two things is bound to occur. One, the NBA would neglect more important issues in order to examine “tampering charges.” Or two, the commish would stop enforcing the rule because he was preoccupied with more pressing issues. Either way the rule would not be effective.

One question that remains to be answered in all this is, “What is even gained by the gag order?” Seriously, what does the NBA think they are accomplishing by prohibiting talk about signing players? Players, coaches, and executives singing the praise of free agents on other teams is not really detrimental to the sport. If anything it’s a little bit of friendly cross promotion that furthers the sport, a refreshing change of pace in professional sports.

If commissioner Stern wants to limit trash talk against other organizations, that is one thing. But as it stands now, coaches cannot even acknowledge that they would like to have a great player on their team. A perfect example of this is Stephen Colbert’s interview with New York Knicks head coach Mike D’Antoni. During the interview, Colbert attempts to elicit some sort of affirmation of interest in recruiting possibly the most coveted free agent of all time, LeBron James. D’Antoni has to bite his tongue and decline comment even in this satirical interview, lest he be fined by the NBA. This is just ridiculous.

Honestly, the whole reason this rule has come to the forefront of national attention as of late is the dramatic twists and turns of the LeBron James sweepstakes. Does anyone seriously think that King James is swayed by the sound bites or quotes given by coaches or general managers? I think not. I seriously doubt that, even if the rule didn’t exist, he would say at tonight’s highly anticipated press conference, “I was going to listen to my heart, my family about where I should play; but I saw on the news that the Mike D’Antoni said I should play for the Knicks, so I figured he was right.”

Anyway you look at it the rule does more damage than good, and that’s reason enough to do away with it. I say, “Let them all talk.” People have gone absolutely nuts over the whole LeBron-apalooza scenario. It has dominated the headlines during a time of year when baseball usually reigns supreme. I caution to make that point because I know that today’s judge is as sick of the situation as anyone. But I think the point is valid because it serves as evidence that all the speculation of late has boosted the NBA’s profile. Sure there will be losers and disenfranchised fans that emerge from the LeBron sweepstakes, but it no doubt has attracted people to follow the sport that usually do not, myself included.

In the end, if a coach wants to put it out there that he wants to recruit a certain player, then more power to him. After all, it’s his credibility that is on the line, not commissioner Stern’s. Look at MLB and the NFL for examples. Vocal owners like George Steinbrenner and Jerry Jones have always been vocal about letting the whole world know who they want to bring into their championship fold. Sometimes they get the guys, and sometimes they don’t. I don’t consider this tampering as much as active recruiting.

If a team starts offering money before free agency, then there is a problem. But that is not what we are debating here today. We are arguing about simple freedom of speech, the right to say what direction a team is moving in, and what players they are seeking. The alternative is creating more bureaucracy in the NBA and in turn more headlines of players, coaches, and executives violating a useless policy. Let the people speak. A little controversy can go a long way towards promoting a league.

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