“Ick” Or Unethical: The NBA Decides To Let Its Players Be Human Billboards

Classy. I can't wait.

Classy. I can’t wait.

News Item, from ESPN:

The NBA announced… that the board of governors has approved a three-year pilot program to allow teams to sell a corporate logo on their jerseys.

Teams can now start pitching companies on buying a 2.5-inch-by-2.5-inch space as the NBA becomes the first of the four major U.S. sports leagues to put ads on regular game-day jerseys. In an era when virtually every facet of the sports experience is advertised or sponsored, the uniform had been the last ad-free haven.

The first season of the program will be in 2017-18…

“It’s my hope, independent of whatever additional revenues are generated through this patch program, that the greatest impact will be in this amplifying effect of companies choosing to associate directly with a team jersey, then going out and promoting that relationship to the largest market,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said.

Silver said the league had calculated that the program will be worth about $100 million a year.

Well, ick.

It’s not bad enough that a city’s sports teams have to play in arenas and stadiums named after pet food retailers, banks, car insurance companies and fraudulent corporations rather than local landmarks and community heroes. Now our kids’ heroes will be branded with commerce too…not literally, of course. Not yet.

The NBA has always been the crassest of the major league sports, so the identity of the first league to break one of the last barriers of money-grubbing indignity was preordained. Most of the NBA’s fans, who already don’t mind that the league corrupts college sports and glorifies men who collect illegitimate children the way normal people collect matchbooks, don’t care, so this was not a hard call for the NBA, I would guess.

It’s gross, but is anything wrong with it? After all, NBA players already accept money to put their names on products. It isn’t as if they have an aura of purity about them, and their obvious venality pales in the shadow of game-winning three-pointers and spectacular dunks. What ethical principle is being violated by the NBA turning its players into walking, jumping, shooting billboards?

If there is one, it’s responsibility. The NBA knows once one of the major sports breaks this taboo, the others will almost surely follow. Hockey is desperate for cash: I’d bet that it will be the next to fall. Then the NFL, which is virtually ethics free anyway, will cash in. Last will be Major League Baseball. At that point, corporations and commercialism will have merged completely with the our children’s and our culture’s heroes, making them indistinguishable.

I know, we are almost there anyway, with or without the uniform ads. I know, it is just a minor slide on the slippery slope down to complete cultural crassness. Nevertheless, it makes society and everyone in it a little more crummy, and ethics is about finding ways to accomplish the opposite.

As a theatrical artistic director and director, I am persuaded of the wisdom of what I call “The Thousand Points Principle.” Every  production ideally has a thousand points before you start making trade-offs and mistakes. No show get in front of an audience with all one thousand intact. The script has flaws—there go a hundred or so. Your lead is good, but not perfect: that’s another 50 gone.  One of the props is anachronistic: there’s a point or two lost. The theater is too cold; the program has typos. More points down the drain.

Individual performances lose points too. A botched line, a missed entrance, a late light cue; these all cost points. When the total points of the show have dwindled from a thousand to dip below, say, 850, it’s not a great show any more, it’s just very good. Another hundred points lost, and the show’s just good; more lost, and it’s just okay. If you are not vigilant,  all the little goofs and miscalculations and flaws, some just costing a point or two, can add up to a failure.

I use this concept to explain why no feature of a theatrical production is too small to care about, and the principle applies to cultures and societies too. Yes, the fact that celebrities and politicians are starting to say “fuck” or worse in public and on live TV is a relatively minor wound to civility. True, the fact that mere endorsement via grafitti of a candidate for a major party’s presidential nomination is sufficient to cause colleges to abandon the principle of free speech shows that there are some termites in our societal foundation, but colleges are almost another planet anyway. And yes, the fact that so many people go through life now staring at, talking on or taking selfies with their cell phones while ignoring the human beings serving them, walking next to them and even eating at the same table as them seems like a harbinger of a lonely, isolated, narcissistic future, but it’s not the end of the world. It just may be, however, that those few points surrendered for an extra $100 million in  the NBA’s coffers  are the ones that push past that invisible line that separates a bearable society from one that is too devoid of ideals, aspiration and values to fight for any more.

I am saying that it is irresponsible to give up even a few points without a better reason than money.

If enough ick is imposed on a society by recklessness and greed, the cumulative results make any unnecessary ick unethical.

9 thoughts on ““Ick” Or Unethical: The NBA Decides To Let Its Players Be Human Billboards

  1. [cereal box coupon] Attention Families! Got school-age kids? Do they run through clothes fast? Need extra cash? Of course you do! We’ll provide the wardrobe with our corporation logo. All Junior mister or miss will need to do is wear it to school, get a company star on the attendance record — your teacher gets points, too! — and hey, presto! an e-check in the mail at the end of the month.

    *100 extra points for having the logo placement front or rear of the pants

    • PA, kids are already wearing manufacturer’s logos on almost all their clothes. Pathetic but it happened twenty or thirty years ago.

      • The point was not to have voluntary fan or style use (free advertising) but the other way round, the clothing paid for by the company and mandatory, as in “branding the family.” My original idea was to buy ad space as tattoos on people’s faces — much more likely, don’t you think? The early appearances of logos on clothing, by the way, were derided (by those such as my parents’ generation who didn’t buy into the branding or saw it as showing off) as “wearing your underwear in public” — sporting the heretofore hidden label on the outside.

        • I’m with your parents. My dad’s cousin, long since dead, a dairy farmer, was tired of wearing seed company’s ball caps and advertising their products for free, so he had a bunch of ball caps made with Holsteins above the bill. He figured he’d at least advertise for his own benefit.

  2. Saw this post coming from as far away as the Russian winter.

    Interesting you use “ick.” I thought “ick” as used here means personal discomfort with something (eg. gay marriage) that does not rise to a level sufficient to provide a basis for ethically opposing something (such as gay marriage). As used herein, I’m not sure “ick” is a reasonable justification for condemning ads on game jerseys.

    There are any number of analogous arguments that can be made in favor of putting “AIG” or “Qatar” on jerseys: Team owners are people too. You’re just old fashioned. Get on the right side of history. Most fans and certainly young kids don’t have a problem with it. What harm does it do? All the other sports are doing it. Seen a tour golfer lately, or a NASCAR or Formula One driver, or his car? Etc., etc.

    Frankly, I’m surprised it’s taken this long to happen. Lots of NFL owners have been snapping up soccer clubs on the cheap. I saw an article a week or so ago that said the English Premier League teams cleared a collective 356 million Euros (or Pounds!) last year on game jersey ads. Pro sports are all all about the money.

    I think it would even be accurate to say your position on this is as unrealistic and quaint as that of people who aren’t enthusiastic about gay marriage.

    Okay, I’m going to step behind this asbestos barrier now.

  3. A wonderful opportunity for some very visible bail bondsmen, crack dealers, luxury car imports, hookers, and so on to get their name out there. Maybe the extended posse with some of the “stars” can also have auxiliary advertising?

    But the big thing is the tattoos! Why waste that space on silly s!!t when you can place an ad?

  4. Local kids’ little league teams — maybe other kids’ teams too — have local business sponsors, and those names are on the jerseys. These businesses become known as good guys and supporters of kids and youth athletics. They hang team photos in their restaurants/barber shops/whatever. There is a community aspect to all of this.

    Corporate support of big league athletics is not the same. This is about greedy companies capitalizing on the popularity of sports played by mostly greedy players and owners. This has become, in fact, no longer sports but just business that has more physicality to it than most. Might as well call every stadium the X Company Coliseum where the X Company Gladiators create a spectacle to distract the plebians from how the patricians are stealing their souls.

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