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As people around the NBA try to assess the future of the labor situation, the idea of a franchise tag keeps rearing its head. David Stern floated the idea back in October, and every so often, the notion has come up again in the public eye. Most recently, ESPN’s Rick Reilly, responding to the Carmelo Anthony trade, wrote the following: “Hello, David Stern? Did you leave a wake-up call for the 21st century? Your clubs need to be able to protect their great players with a franchise tag, as the NFL does. If that isn’t priority No. 1 in your lockout talks, you need the Wite-Out.”
Reilly’s assertion that the NBA needs protection from the players is nothing new. In fact, I would venture to say that no other entertainment industry or sports league so suffers from the perception that its very lifeblood–the men on the court, the product–is antithetical to the goals of the league. In the Stern era, concessions like the dress code and the rules about players leaving the bench have been made to quiet worries that players were violent or disrespectful in a way that was threatening to the league. This franchise tag idea, though, is something different. This is not a response to the image crisis that happens after the brawl at the Palace, or an attempt to win over people turned off by Allen Iverson’s brilliant and brash nonchalance. Rather, the hypothetical franchise tag seems to be a measure entirely more odious, and based even more in harmful mythology, than either of those two provisions, and to fully apply the logic of the franchise tag is to fundamentally change the league for the worse.
The seed of the franchise tag, or the idea of it, is without a doubt the pain that recent superstar departures have caused their fan bases. While this is totally understandable–particularly in the case of a high-profile local product like LeBron–I feel as if, in 2011, it hardly needs to be pointed out how one-sided fans’ views about player movement can be. As in, fans root for teams cutting beloved players all the time. Across every sport. Some Lakers fans have been calling for Derek Fisher’s head for years. The Indianapolis Colts just cut Bob Sanders. The Oakland Athletics traded Rickey Henderson and then refused for years to allow him one game–one single game–in an A’s uniform to retire where he belonged. I have heard no major protests about how the Oakland Athletics or the Indianapolis Colts are ruining their leagues, though I would argue that it is much, much more dangerous to sports for a team to cut an often-injured player when they feel like it because they did not perform due diligence with their medical staff before offering him enormous amounts of money. The whole idea of teams moving players is fine with the viewing public–it’s business, they’re professionals, they’re just playing a game anyway. When players flip this narrative, though, that’s when the Rick Reilly’s of the world start to pile on. (If you want to read Tom Scocca’s brilliant takedown of Reilly, who himself moved from the Denver Post to the bright lights, big market rags Sports Illustrated and ESPN.com, it’s here.)
The narrative holds that players have a responsibility to the fans, that they are emblems of a city and must take that representation seriously. But the reality of the situation is that NBA fans are rooting for business entities, and rooting for basketball success is often the same as rooting for business success. You root for Mark Cuban to empower his organization to spend money and energize players, or for Peter Holt to get out of the way of his brilliant front office. Realistically, the core thing you root for is not pick-and roll-execution or hard play, but an organization which enables those things in the first place. However, the owners have the luxury of staying behind the curtain until they feel like it, staying quiet about their decisions until they see an advantage in making themselves visible. It’s the players, though, who are out there in precious little more than underwear, showcasing their personalities and their games, appearing for all the world like the defining element of their franchises. I think that’s why fans so often feel that when a player leaves an organization, the responsibility falls on the player. They’re so much more recognizable, and we know so much more about them than we do the owners. For instance, it’s fairly easy to formulate a narrative in which Carmelo’s departure for New York is related to his “Stop Snitchin’” video and his cowardly back-pedal slap in MSG, or his outspoken wife’s desire to be somewhere she can launch herself as a brand. It is much harder, with the precious few glimpses we get of owners, to formulate a similar narrative about the business side of the league that might explain Carmelo’s decision.
The thinking is that a franchise tag would force players–or at least, one player for every team–to respect that bond with their fans. What it won’t do is force the owners, the people who have very real public relationships, with things like tax incentives for arenas and a vast number of jobs they offer to cities, to respect that same bond. No amount of franchise tagging will prevent Clay Bennett moving from one totally viable market to a smaller one, or from the Maloofs committing 70 million to Beno Udrih and Francisco Garcia while complaining about their arena, or from Donald Sterling parading his players’ “beautiful black bodies” for women in the Clippers’ locker room. Why do we believe that owners like this–the owners, Bennett excepted, who are much more likely to be drafting coveted players–deserve to keep starts simply because ping-pong balls determined the location of that star’s rookie season?
Mostly, competent organizations keep the players they have. The Spurs have their trio, OKC seems to have pleased its stars, other teams at other times have had a mutually beneficial relationship with stars in small markets. And even when this isn’t true–I would argue that the Cavs and Nuggets did a plenty good job of trying to field winners–young, supremely gifted men should be allowed to make decisions about their livelihood as they see fit. Do you know how fast I would move to a world-class city to make millions of dollars if my wife would be happier? Or how fast I would jump at the opportunity to work with my best friends, who were also world class talents, in a state with no income tax and no winter? I recently had to quit a good job because of a broad range of factors that did not allow me to have time for it, and nobody mentioned I was betraying any sense of responsibility. It is understood, in almost every business, that people have a right to do what they feel is best for themselves as it pertains to their work, and the simple issue of owing it to someone, or even the single issue of winning a championship, does not dictate that right. Further, it is so easy to miss the fact that owners themselves are huge players in this process, and don’t need any further means to ensure their success without succeeding at winning games and having good organizations. Player movement keeps teams accountable. Player movement means that human beings get to decide by whatever criteria they favor what is best for them. Player movement, in essence, ensures a vibrant league.
Forgive me this sprawling argument. It’s a complex issue, trying to parse out what it means to be a member of a team, and when that relationship can be ended or changed. And for the record, I don’t see the franchise tag happening for a variety of reasons. But as a strain of thought, I think the notion of such a tag reveals some inconsistencies in how many people see the game and the league, and that it’s important to remember how untenable it would be to force players to behave in a way that may run contrary to their interests, whatever those may be.