Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
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.)