The NBA’s Unethical, Unavoidable, “Bait And Switch”

For a second consecutive Saturday, ABC’s  Saturday prime time NBA game was a pre-rigged dud. The LA Clippers blew out the supposedly star-studded Cavaliers, 108-78, as chants of “We want LeBron” echoed through the arena. The three super-stars that make Cleveland an NBA powerhouse,  LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, were all kept out of the game, not because they were injured,  but because Cleveland coach Ty Lue had decided to rest his “Big 3” in the first of back-to-back games. Sure enough, all three played against the Lakers the next day.

It has become standard practice in the NBA for play-off bound teams to rest stars for “strategic purposes,” meaning that in a league where more than half the teams make the play-offs and the regular season is little more than an exhibition for most of them, it makes no sense to blow out the stars until a championship is on the line.  The NBA, in short, has no integrity. (Neither does the National Hockey League, for the same reason.) The previous Saturday, the San Antonio Spurs blew out the Warriors, 107-85,  as Golden State fielded a  JV team, with Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson all on the bench. Yet NBA’s new nine-year, $24 billion media rights deal with ABC, Disney and Turner Broadcasting included Saturday Primetime along with  the TNT Thursday Night NBA game and ESPN’s Wednesday and Friday night broadcasts, to showcase the best of the NBA. (Most of the NBA teams never make it to the Saturday ABC game.)

Shouldn’t that kind of money guarantee that the teams put their best players out on the court? NBA fans also typically shell out three figures for tickets. Doesn’t the league pull what is in essence a bait and switch by allowing a game to be treated as a virtual forfeit?

During Saturday’s telecast, ABC pointedly showed signs from Clippers fans at its Staples Center complaining that fans had paid hundreds of dollars for tickets, only to watch the Cavs’ Big Three sit on the sidelines in their warmup clothes. Over at ESPN, Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy condemned NBA coaches resting healthy stars as an “absolute joke.” Said Jackson,  “Who is protecting the fan? Who is protecting the game of basketball? Something’s got to be done.” Van Gundy accused the league, coaches and players of pulling a bait and switch on fans (and more to the point, Disney, ABC, ESPN and Turner, who are periodically getting half-hearted TV games for their billions) . “If this was any other business, this would be a prosecutor offense,” Van Gundy said.

After the game, coach Lue told reporters that his team could afford the loss, suggesting that the price of preparing his team to prevail in the play-offs was an occasional 30-point blow-out in March.

This is an ethics conflict. The team’s primary duty is to win a championship, and if the schedule and rules are set up so that kissing-off some games  during the regular season (by not playing its stars) maximizes the chances of ultimate success, then that’s the ethical course. It is not the ethical course, however, if TV networks and ticket buyers have been induced to pay money under the misconception that all televised NBA games would be contested to the best of the teams’ abilities.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver gets it.  Two days after the Cavaliers fiasco, he called the practice of teams resting marquee players “an extremely significant issue for our league” in a memo sent to team owners.  In the memo, Silver warned of ‎”significant penalties” for teams that don’t abide by the league’s standing rules for providing ‎”notice to the league office, their opponent, and the media immediately upon a determination that a player will not participate in a game due to rest,” noting that these decisions have serious consequences for  “fans and business partners,” the reputation of the league and “perception of our game.”

Let me refine my earlier statement: Silver sort of gets it. He is, in fact, blaming the victims here. The NBA, not the teams or coaches, make the schedules and devised the cynical system whereby the regular season games mean nothing to the best teams in the league, which know they can make the play-offs at half-steam. Coaches also know that going into the play-offs with injured or burned-out stars means their jobs are at risk. Is Silver really telling teams to alert their TV partners in advance that a televised game will be a wipe-out, so it is in the untenable position of either alerting audiences to watch re-runs of old “Big Bang Theory” episodes, or risk being accused of a “bait and switch” themselves?

The ugly truth is this: there is no ethical solution. The National Basketball Association has created its own Bizarro World, where there is no respect for integrity and money is all that matters. In a Bizarro World, the unethical is ethical, and the ethical doesn’t work. Give the networks, the TV audience and paying customers what they have a right to expect in March, and lose the championship (and play worse basketball)  in June, when the TV ratings matter most. Tank games in March to maximize the chances of winning later, and get fined by the league that put you in this impossible position, while being flamed by broadcasters. It’s Ethics Zugswang.

This, by the way, is why I don’t follow pro basketball.


Sources: Sporting News, Mediaite, SI


31 thoughts on “The NBA’s Unethical, Unavoidable, “Bait And Switch”

  1. It’s the Los Angeles Clippers, Jack. They haven’t played out of San Diego since before I was born (1984).

    I do follow the NBA because I love the sport of basketball more than any other sport-and I think it’s both ethically and aesthetically superior to the NCAA.

    That being said, I have never disagreed with your criticisms of the organization.

  2. Just so you know, Jack, the team’s name may be the Golden State Warriors, but the team’s home court is in Oakland, and Oaklanders consider the team to be our own. Nobody here ever refers to the Warriors as being a San Francisco team.

    • I agree with you and have watched little professional basketball since Bird was still playing.

      March Madness has become slimey as well. In the games this past weekend, a high proportion of the questionable calls went in favor of the team that would draw higher television ratings in the next round of games. I have noticed this trend for a quarter of a century but it grows more prevalent as the years roll by.

  3. If there is one complaint I hear all the time from the clients of other lawyers, and I am in the business of hearing such complaints and sometimes acting on them, it is that the law firm partner who signed them up passed off the actual work to a more junior attorney. Such clients are almost always out of luck, except for the rare instance where the client has the foresight to negotiate the individual partner’s precise role into the retainer agreement.

    Essentially law firms have the same issue as the NBA — a limited amount of marketable talent but an ability to “bait and switch” without much financial consequence. Whether going to basketball games or hiring a law firm, its caveat emptor.

    • I once refused to pay a big name prof and university institute for research that was really done by grad students. They were shocked and indignant, but refunded a lot of the money anyway, because a law suit would expose the scam, which is academia -wide.

  4. Jack: Seven words (kind of) for you: a one hundred and sixty game season.

    All professional (and I’m including major college) sports seasons are WAY too long. Eighty-two basketball games in a season? Finals in June? Sixteen football games? Championship game in February? Baseball games played in spring and fall snowstorms? At night? College kids, so called, playing twelve football games plus and thirty plus basketball games? All for beer ad revenue? Ridiculous.

    Cut the regular seasons back. Owners: stop diluting your product and crippling your players.

    Fat chance.

    (But don’t single out NBA basketball and leave MLB on hallowed ground.)

    • Not too long for me in the baseball season. The regular season is the crown jewel; the daily chapters of a thousand novels. It’s been 162 games since 1961. The play-offs make the season seem long, but only 10 out of 30 make it, and two of those for a single game.

      The problem in basketball as well is the play-offs, and a game that is no longer about team play but dunks and acrobatics.

      • Oh–as to your last statement: baseball has never been better. It is not star centered: real fans don’t come to see single players. Pitchers draw, but they are announced well in advance. The roster is 25, and the team is 9 (10 in the AL). In any single game, a reserve can outshine a star. Players have always been rested. The quality of the game improves regularly.

        Basketball, however, has ceased being a respectable sport.

        • I know full well you’re an ardent baseball afficianado, but in ’61 it was 162, plus a maximum of seven for two teams. It’s a fine sport. Baseball, golf and soccer are all I will watch anymore. But my goodness, wouldn’t a 145 game season be sufficient? Take two weeks off both ends. Less can be more. I know, I know. The record books. They can be adjusted.

  5. Next to last paragraph…rather than “Stern”, I believe you meant “Silver”.

    The N.B.A. could shorten the season. I know this will not happen since it would mean a large reduction in revenue.

    The N.B.A. could fine the offending team a large amount for not playing healthy stars on nationally televised games. Perhaps, the fine could be for failure to play multiple stars in a game.

    The N.B.A. could force the offending team to pay for the refund of all ticket fees paid for that game. The kids who love certain stars and do not get to see them are the real losers here. I am not able to find anything that would compensate the kids fairly for not seeing their favorite players but refunds to their parents who paid exorbitent prices for tickets so their kids would be happy are in order.

  6. Jack,

    I agree with much of your analysis, but I don’t think it is a bait and switch.

    It is a logical outcome of the rules of the game. When you get into the final weeks of the NFL, there will often be talk of whether the starters will be starting. If a team has secured home-field advantage through the play-offs, OF COURSE! they will want to keep their star players rested and healthy. Any fan knows that going in. And the NFL has done a good job on two fronts: 1) the last two or three games of the season are against division opponents, making them interesting and potentially consequential for deciding the division winner; and 2) the last several weeks of the NFL season are “flex” weeks, where playing times can be changed so that a game of particular interest can be highlighted by moving it to a Sunday Night spot, for example, and giving it a national audience. This is not possible for most league; the NFL has an advantage that the majority of games each week are played on the same day; it would be much harder to switch around games in other leagues.

    The thing is: this is true in every sport (and this is not an “everybody does it” rationalization. This is a “playing by the rules” rationalization.

    Why does MLB have a trade deadline in Late-July (August?)? So, teams can’t trade for a star player after that player’s team is eliminated in the Wild-Card round (and, I have to say, Major League Baseball does not know how to do a Wild Card round; it’s just dumb)? Great, Mission Accomplished! You know what else it accomplished; you can tell fans that you are throwing in the towel on a season if you trade off your good players before that deadline, or you can tell them you think you could make the playoffs if you acquire some people before then. The season ticket holders are stuck with the team either way. There is no bait and switch. The fans know about the deadline; they know the strategy.

    They also know that the strategy is to pull a pitcher after 100 pitches (or so). You don’t see full games very often anymore. Is that a bait and switch? If a pitcher gets to 100 pitches in 5 innings, they don’t give him a chance to turn the game around (and sometimes fans don’t want that).

    I still am a big fan of Jack Morris’s complete Game 7 (10-innings) of the World Series in 1991 (on 3-day’s rest, I believe, another rule that fans understand and can predict), pitching 3 games in that series, if I recall. (I know, you said your favorite was some Red Sox player who needed to pitch 176 times (or something) in order to win a meaningless Game 4 of the World Series.) Those sorts of performances are unexpected, but fans understand the rules and the strategy. There is no bait and switch.

    When the NBA put in the 24-second shot clock, that changed the game. Having a Bonus system for free throws in the NBA changed the system. Now, most people know that the last 3 minutes of a basketball game can be decisive (and may last 30 minutes).

    We know why there are so many fouls in the last few minutes of an NBA game.

    We know what a 2-minute offense is for.

    We know that the last minute and a half of a football game may just be one team downing the football three times in a row.

    We know why they spike the ball, instead of playing every single down in order to advance the ball.

    We know why you might switch out a left handed pitcher who only pitched 4 pitches to 1 player.

    We know why players are intentionally walked.

    We know why pinch runners are put in.

    We know why those three NBA players were benched. There was no bait and switch. It was a foreseeable strategic play within the rules.


    • Oh now you’re going to hear it! Jack has pointed out that the NFL is the most unethical of them all since they don’t care about turning their players brains to mush.

      • I trust Jack not to let his bias against the game to color his fair analysis of how rules can affect long-term strategies.

    • This is practice might work itself out in time. The planned, monitored resting of players is maybe something of a fad, but it’s being driven by statistical analysis that says it works. It might be that in ten years people will come back to the notion of seeing teams instead of individual players. Maybe Stub Hub will start to offer ticket insurance or something.

    • Perhaps the worst aspect of the NBA was when teams who were eliminated from the playoffs would play to lose so they would get a better draft pick. It was literally a race to the bottom that league intervention to neutralize that incentive.

  7. I share many of your conclusions regarding the NBA and its product. In fact I had this conversation last night with a friend who is an NHL fan but not a basketball fan as we were at the Bruins/Leafs game. He made a statement that I like the NBA. I said I like the game of basketball but not the NBA (or NCAA). I despise the unequal treatment of players and teams by NBA referees and the changing standard of refereeing even within a single game. I think too many of the NBA stars are prima donnas and whiny bees who sulk and pout when a call doesn’t go their way. Role models in that league are truly lacking.

    Though the NHL has some issues with player resting, I am not sure that baseball, even for the reasons Jack has mentioned, is without similar fault. Healthy scratches in NHL have a long history. It is a much more physical game than the NBA or MLB and fans can’t expect to see every star play to full potential every night. The seasons are just too long and the players are all too human. The public appears to support this, at least on some level, as leagues have been expanding with some regularity for years, diluting the overall standard of play, demanding ever greater concessions from cities to fund/backstop new venues and yet there are fans that keep buying tickets.

    That being said, it is unconscionable that a showcase game such as this one should have a diminished line up. The match was clearly set up by the league to sell the game to a wider audience and to deliver to the broadcaster a product that justifies the hefty rights fees. This is more important than any “All Star” game, which is a joke 99 times out of a 100. The league failed to deliver by failing to ensure team owners act in the best interest of the game instead of their own team. They will likely continue to fail as the league, like the other pro leagues, is governed by its owners. No conflict of interest there.

    While winning teams behave badly, what about the losing ones? Ticket prices are set at the beginning of the year when everyone is all potential energy and no kinetic. Every team plans on being a contender (some teams are more honest – the Leafs have stated that they will not be contenders for some time as they rebuild and have asked for patience.) then they play for half a season or so and it is clear that a number of the teams will never reach 500. Once a team’s relative placing is assured and its is clearly not in the running, none offer a price reduction for future games in my experience. They would rather play to mostly empty stands.

    So is the ticket and its associated price for a seat only or its it for an experience?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.