What NBA Free Agency Can Teach Us about the International System & Political Signaling

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By James Neary

The intersectionality of politics and sports is an ever-present fissure in the harsh divisions of America today. You can yell back and forth across the dinner table about why players should or should not kneel, wear black hoodies, or lambast the president. But you can’t argue this: sports ​are politics. Power dynamics, economics, and public relations are obvious driving forces behind both the Warriors and the White House. While this article largely focuses on the context of the NBA and the boisterous atmosphere surrounding free agency headed into this weekend, the concepts mentioned here will be largely applicable to other leagues as well. While to most political scholars the metaphor is apparent, the sports fan less versed in the traditions of Capitol Hill stands to gain a lot from this discussion.

Although the metaphor isn’t perfect, the NBA today can be seen as an international system similar to the one every human on earth calls their own, except for maybe Marxists. Political scholars usually refer to our syste​m as ​anarchy ,which you know the meaning of. Despite the UN and other international organizations’ best effort to instill some rule of law on a global level, realist theory in political science argues that doesn’t mean much. How the NBA functions similarly to this follows: Each team acting as a nation, or ‘black box,’ in which you can hardly see the inner policy, practices, and traditions of the institution itself, but are left instead with the resulting implications of the choices made through their internal processes. There are institutions such as the NBA itself, the NBPA, the television and internet service providers, etc. that do impose rules over combat (games), economics (salary caps), diplomacy (trades), and ethics (dress code). Politically, either from a realist or liberal (not like that, idiots) perspective, the argument can be made both that these institutions do and do not play a leading role in the decisions made by teams.

Now that the overall framework and political theory is established, it’s time to take a look at this year’s NBA free agency circus and see how it corresponds to our political conditions. To be completely forthcoming, I’m a diehard Celtics fan, but I also appreciate the unprecedented grandeur of (IMHO) the greatest player of ever, Lebron. In our metaphor, the games these teams play against each other are representative of actual battle between states. This can be thought of as either military or economic competition, as the former seems to be traded for the latter in recent politics. If you are going with the most basic metaphor, games as battles, then in that context Lebron is equal to the largest concentrated nuclear payload on Earth. Golden State has the most combined nukes, and maybe even the second largest single concentration in KD or Steph. Draymond is kind of like a predator missile: easy to deploy and very destructive, but can cause a lot of unwanted damage. Teams, just like states, are in a constant struggle with others to secure these assets and deploy them effectively on the battlefield to maximize their returns.

As stated above, the metaphor isn’t perfect, but it’s obvious the teams in the NBA (and the WNBA, NFL, CFL, MLB, NHL, MLS, LLWS… maybe not that last one) function according to a framework of power dynamics similar to that of our international system. What prompted this discussion, however, is the ​seemingly exaggerated media circus leading up to Lebron, Kawhi, and PG’s decision to stay or leave their respective teams this year. Sorry to burst the bubble, but I’m of the school of thought that this is not out of the ordinary in any way. It’s the very nature of our political institutions and their derivative economy to systematically bombard us with information every hour of the day, every day of the year. This might be a phenomenon that has developed recently, seeing as the most unrelenting place it manifests itself, in both the political and athletic arenas, is my push notifications. The logic stands though, the NBA or any other sports organization has nothing to gain in a quiet offseason. They lose money, they lose ratings, and they lose traction. Michelle Beadle and Mike Greenberg, on GetUp! On ESPN following the NBA awards, pointed out the balance of awkwardness for having the show so long after the regular season (when the votes were cast) and of politics for having so much invested in such an ambitious event. So there it is, whether through free agency, championship parades, fallings out between superstars, or fashion shows, the NBA will always give you as much to talk about in the offseason as it can.

 

That being said, what was about this offseason in particular that prompted such a discussion on the intersectionality of sports and politics? To be honest, I think the average basketball fan is becoming increasingly aware of this connection due to the rate at and ease with which we see these developments. What has been particularly noticeable this offseason is the amount of political signaling going on between teams and parties. Magic Johnson, proving to be a very skilled statesmen, has executed some of the better attempts at this so far. Signaling to fans his resolve, he recently committed to stepping down as President of Basketball Operations for the Lakers if he were unable to land some big free agents this offseason or next. Signaling resolve is often used by leaders during international combat, but can be utilized in economic and diplomatic relations as well. Perhaps most similar to Magic’s case in a relevant American context, Republican Senate Candidate for Missouri Austin Petersen challenged grassroots Republican primary adversary Tony Monetti to a high stakes unofficial ballot in which the loser would resign. Both candidates initially agreed, but Monetti backed out, signaling weak resolve to his voting base while Petersen signaled strong. US Rep Maxine Waters’ call for private discrimination against members of the Trump administration and Senator Chuck Schumer’s condemnation of her remarks are also signals of resolve relevant to their respective voting bases. Magic Johnson’s recent strategic move, however, is also indicative another political phenomenon we’ve seen play out on the international stage recently. What Magic did was essentially ‘draw a line in the sand,’ as President Obama did in 2012 with his denunciation of the Assad regime in Syria. What weight these red lines actually hold in practice however, is up for debate.

Besides just the words of Magic Johnson, there have been numerous occurrences of political signaling in recent days of the NBA offseason. Perhaps the most obnoxious form of signaling is coming from Lavar Ball. When looking at the dynamics of the Kawhi Leonard situation, Lavar’s endless media stunts, self-promotion, and cold takes make perfect sense. The Spurs, a franchise notorious for flying under the radar and giving the media as limited access as possible, see Lavar as significant cost to obtaining Lonzo from the Lakers. The fact that it’s the Spurs makes that cost significantly higher than it would be for any other team as well. Knowing that the Lakers will probably have to deal Zo or Kuzma to San Antonio to grab Kawhi, Lavar is making it exponentially more difficult for that deal to happen with his son. Therefore, Lavar is setting up Lonzo, a pass-first and lanky rebounding point guard, to play with two of the greatest two-way wings of all time. A pretty brilliant move in my opinion, and one that echos Israel’s attempts to leverage as much power as they possibly can to shift the international relation strategies of the United States more in their favor.

 

The metaphors and political connections in this scenario between the Lakers, Spurs, and Lebron do not stop there obviously. You have virtue signaling, like in that horrible poem that Lakers intern wrote for softy Paul George. Commitment signaling, like in how Kyrie was absent from the Celtics bench in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals this year. I think it could even be reasonably argued that Lonzo’s diss track to Kuzma was a signal to Lebron that he was willing to part ways with his good friend to make space for him. The Lakers, evidently thought this was poorly executed, as they reprimanded the two rising sophomores for their antics, thus signaling to Lebron their capabilities. Lebron has even engaged in this signaling himself, most probably by orchestrating leaks from his camp that he doesn’t want to hear any pitches, most absurdly by wearing a hat during the finals saying “There is no magic pill.” It seems that every year, every summer, there has developed this atmosphere of circus surrounding NBA free agency. I hope that I’ve established this atmosphere is far from unprecedented or unreasonable. Applying frameworks of political science, including organizations of international systems, political signaling, and power dynamics is useful for understanding the neverending onslaught of Joel Embiid’s tweets and Stephen A.’s rants involving the NBA.

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