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.

Politics is Once Again Interfering With My Football

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This is more of a two-part thing since their are two stories I wanted to divulge into today that have some sort of political connection. The first, of course, being that the NFL made it mandatory to stand for the National Anthem before games. However, they are giving players the option to remain in the locker room for it. But if you are not standing prior to kickoff, fines could be in store for both players and the organization they play for. The NFL Players Association stated that they were not consulted about this decision prior to it being made, suggesting that this was a one-sided deal.

I talked about this a while back, in fact it was one of my very first blogs on this site. But I’ll give you a little reminder of my feelings about kneeling in saying that I used to think it was just a publicity stunt by Colin Kaepernick to get himself back in the spotlight until I saw the effect it was having on his fellow players. I have no problem with nonviolent protests, which is what the kneeling is. It’s protesting what they feel are injustices against the black community, particularly as it pertains to police brutality. I understand where people who think it is disrespectful to the flag are coming from, really, I do. But NFL owners have ZERO business telling players they can’t peacefully protest. They’re not hurting the product on the field since the protests happen before the opening kickoff so it’s not like they’re affecting the on-field product. The anthem is often not televised so it’s not like people at home would know if the media didn’t blow a big siren every time a player did.

But this ruling appears to be final and I guarantee you there will be some guys who will want to invoke their right to free speech. The basics will likely be some guys will still be out there and will raise the Black Power Fist. However I also feel it will be very likely that some creative forms of protest may arise as a way of fighting back. NFL players aren’t robots, they have personalities and feelings and they’re not morons. They will find a way to make their voices heard and I whole-heartedly encourage that. NFL players have as much right to free speech as everybody else in America. The NFL has no business impeding a First Amendment right at any time. It’s less “American” than any type of nonviolent protest these players are doing.

Other politics stuff, Donald Trump claims that the Department of Justice was spying on him or something along those lines. Why do I care about this? Well Trump has a name for this: Spygate.

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This just proves that Trump doesn’t actually watch football and was just getting mad about the anthem protests to try and up his approval rating. For those who weren’t watching football in 2007 or anything related to the New England Patriots since then, Spygate was when the Patriots had a camera on the sideline against the New York Jets in Week 1 of the 2007 season that was a violation of a relatively new set of rules and cost the Patriots a first round draft pick and about a million dollars in combined fines. I mean, it’s only dogged the Patriots for the last 10 years or so and the accusing party, the New York Jets, are kind of the team of the city you’ve been staying in for most of your life so you’re bound to have heard the expression somewhere at some point in passing. But apparently not. Well if that’s the case, Mr. Trump, if you would like the rights to Spygate, I suggest talking to Mr. Goodell and see if the Patriots can get one of their two first round picks in 2008 back? So that the Pats can use it on that Kansas State wide receiver Jordy Nelson, or that Tulane runningback Matt Forte. Or even that Texas runningback Jamaal Charles. He seems like he could become a pretty good back with the right coaching. That would be nice.

So yeah, politics don’t mesh well for me. Stay the Hell out. Let me know what you think of these political sports happenings in the comments section below or on Facebook or Twitter @jimwyman10.

General Sports: May 3

at Fenway Park on May 2, 2018 in Boston, Massachusetts.

-Mookie Betts is on a freaking tear. While he did miss some time with a leg injury (his absence was more precautionary than anything since it was determined to just be a bruise), he has been a monster for the Red Sox in the first month of the season, culminating with his 4th career 3-home run game, the most in franchise history. The Major League record is 6 by Johnny Mize and Sammy Sosa. Oh and he’s still just 25 years old. Mookie is currently hitting .365 with a Major League-leading 11 home runs and 21 RBI and along with the hot-hitting Hanley Ramirez, Xander Bogaerts, and JD Martinez, the Red Sox boast one of the deadliest lineups in baseball to go along with a stellar pitching rotation. This team is scary. 

-Not to be outdone, Indians DH Edwin Encarnacion also hit 3 home runs in a game, this one against the Rangers. As of right now, I have no idea if there has ever been 2 3-home run games on the same day in Major League history, but it sounds like one of those oddities that could be the case. Encarnacion really needed a game like this because heading into it, he was slashing .171/.250/.352, which are abysmal numbers for the notorious slow-starter. However once he gets going, there isn’t a deadlier right-handed bat in the Majors. As I mentioned, Encarnacion always gets off to a slow start to the season and by the end of it, he’s usually his typically dangerous self. He is 35, though, so perhaps a downward trend is on the horizon.

-Glenn Jacobs won the Republican nomination in the Knox County, Tennessee mayoral race. Since he is a Republican in Tennessee, that pretty much all but guarantees that he’s going to become Knox County’s next mayor. In fact, he won the Republican nomination by just 17 votes! Now, you might be wondering why I give a shit about this when I’ve made it known I hate politics and this is seemingly the most unimportant mayoral race ever. Well the fact of the matter is that I love Glenn Jacobs and he had a profound impact on my childhood and even now currently in my adulthood. Never heard of him? Well, that’s because he is better known to the public by a different name. HE’S FUCKING KANE FROM WWE!!! That’s right, the Big Red Machine, the Undertaker’s brother, the guy who had some very problematic storylines in the WWE (including an angle where he rapes a female wrestler, impregnates her, then another wrestler causes her to miscarry) is the favorite to become the mayor of a county in Tennessee. When I was a kid, my brothers and I used to perform wrestling moves on each other like any other kids. There were a few moves that we liked to do. The one we probably did the most was Chris Jericho’s “Walls of Jericho” mainly because it was a pretty easy move as well as John Cena’s “Attitude Adjustment” (which back then was called “The FU”). But Kane’s “Chokeslam” was one of our favorites to do. So I’m pretty excited for the Devil’s Favorite Demon to hit that Chokeslam on some ne’er-do-wells in Knox County, Tennessee and have Hellfire lining the sidewalks. Here are some Gifs to showcase just how great a mayor Kane is going to make.

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Don’t you just love America? Also, Kane’s first name is “Glenn.” If that doesn’t destroy a man’s aura then I don’t know what does.

-Indians pitcher Trevor Bauer thinks that Astros pitchers may be doctoring the baseballs. In a Twitter thread, Bauer basically stated that the balls feel stickier there and that he feels that it’s very suspicious that Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole have become absolute monsters since joining the Astros and went into a rant about gum and stuff like that. While I am a fan of Bauer and his lack of filter, I think this is a bit farfetched and just begging for somebody to get targeted when the Indians and Astros square off. First of all, yes, Verlander and Cole have seen significant upticks in production since joining the Astros. However these are also two of the most talented pitchers in baseball who needed a change in scenery and got that in Houston. I don’t think it’s crazy to think that Verlander and Cole would be #1 and #2, respectively, in the AL in strikeouts, which is where they currently rank. These guys have always been strikeout pitchers and now they seem to be invigorated. I think it’s more likely that Astros pitching coach Brent Strom is doing a Hell of a job. I mean have you seen Charlie Morton lately? A 34 year-old hitting 99 mph has nothing to do with doctoring baseballs. Strom is just killing it with these guys right now.

-I finished All or Nothing’s Dallas Cowboys edition a few days ago but kept forgetting to give my thoughts on it like I did with their Michigan edition. Here’s a few things I noticed:

Michigan definitely employed a no-swearing policy because the Cowboys had some of the biggest potty-mouths in the league (Dez Bryant being a particularly big offender). I was also a little surprised by head coach Jason Garrett’s potty mouth. He strikes me as the kind of guy who says “flipping” when he means “fucking.” But nope. No he says “fucking” like a normal person.

Cowboys runningbacks coach Gary Brown was the breakout star of this show. His relationship with the runningbacks was kind of a mixture of a father who will be your best friend but will also impart his wisdom upon you. This was very apparent when he had the backs over his house for dinner with his family and you could just tell everybody loved each other. Darren McFadden showing up dressed like Brown and talking like he does was also pretty amusing. I actually had no idea McFadden actually retired during the season until All or Nothing talked about it. Shame, too. McFadden was a big “what if” in the NFL because he was extremely talented but was held back by injuries.

Dez Bryant and Jourdan Lewis talking trash to each other was my favorite part of the series. It was only a one-part segment but these guys were jawing at each other during their STRETCHING. It was pretty funny how much tension you could sense, though I kind of got the vibe that Lewis was just trying to provoke Bryant and Bryant was taking the bait. They then went one-on-one with each other and had to get separated because Lewis got pissed because he thought Dez pushed off of him when he made the catch (he kind of did, but it was pretty bang-bang).

My one complaint was that I don’t think they emphasized Tyron Smith’s importance to the offense enough. Yes, when he went down, they made sure to highlight that his replacements, Chaz Green and Byron Bell, got absolutely DESTROYED by Adrian Clayborn to the tune of 6 sacks. But while they were in the starting roles there was little to no mention of Smith’s absence or recovery timetable. In fact, they didn’t even acknowledge his return. Smith is the best left tackle in football now that Joe Thomas is retired but you wouldn’t know it based on All or Nothing. In fact, I think the entire offensive line kind of got the shaft in favor of Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott.

That’s going to do it for this edition of General Sports. Let me know what you think of the topics discussed in the comments section below or on Facebook or Twitter @jimwyman10. Vote Kane.

 

Mike Pence Makes Peyton Manning’s Day About Himself

So yesterday there was a football game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium. It was a day where the Colts were honoring Peyton Manning, the second greatest quarterback of all time (the Colts really seem to enjoy celebrating being second best). The Colts erected a statue in Manning’s honor, retired his number, and inducted him into their Ring of Honor at halftime of the game, which featured a nice moment between Manning and former teammates Jeff Saturday and Reggie Wayne. Yet somehow, former Indiana governor and current Vice President of the United States Mike Pence seemed to make this day about him.

Pence left the game shortly after the national anthem because some players were kneeling during it. I’ll spare you my thoughts about kneeling for the anthem, as I already did a blog about it, which you can read here. I’ll let Twitter do the storytelling for me about the events that transpired.

I’m going to ignore the fact that Pence is protesting the protests against police brutality. In fact, let’s pretend that NFL players who take knees are just protesting having to eat vegetables when they visit their mom. It doesn’t really matter in this case. Regardless of what your beliefs are on the topic of NFL players taking a knee, you have to recognize that Mike Pence leaving an NFL game early after so many measures were taken to ensure that he was able to safely attend the game is a dick move.

First of all, Pence was coming to Indianapolis straight out of Las Vegas after the tragic events of last week and was going to fly to Los Angeles after the game was done (or after he left the game early). That’s tax payers’ money right there by the way. Then he attends a Colts game. Due to the significance of his position, security is beefed up at Lucas Oil Stadium to ensure that he is able to attend this game safely. It’s already enough of a hassle getting into an NFL stadium for a game. Add in the arrival of the Vice President and you’ve got yourself a marathon of patience just to get to a seat you shelled out a crap load of money for. Then Pence has the audacity to leave this game because of players kneeling in what was clearly a planned move.

So how much of the American people’s time and money did Pence waste with this selfish stunt? Too much.

Really? You couldn’t bother to take another selfie?

Oh, and the Colts beat the 49ers 26-23 in OT. It was quite the entertaining game, especially at the end. Too bad Pence didn’t get to see it.

Dear Mr. Trump, Beware of the NFL

Those of you who know me know I avoid politics like the plague. I would go into a tangent about why I hate everything there is to hate about politics, but I think Frank Reynolds of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia sums up my thoughts nicely:792330

But when politics sticks its nose into my beloved sports, that’s where I draw the line. I can’t keep my silence further following Donald Trump’s comments about NFL players taking a knee. But to really express my opinions and where my heart stands to the fullest extent, I need to start at the beginning: with Colin Kaepernick.

When Colin Kaepernick sat on the bench during the singing of the national anthem before the start of a preseason game, I thought very little of it. My thoughts were that he was about to lose his starting job to Blaine freaking Gabbert and he wanted to get his name back into relevance after a steep decline in performance since the end of the 2013 season, when he was a Richard Sherman tipped pass away from taking the San Francisco 49ers to repeat Super Bowl appearances. I thought the media debates about whether Kap was in the right or wrong were completely unnecessary and stupid and I was confident that it would die out once the regular season started. Because really, you can only muster up so many interesting storylines when the games don’t count. Kap sat in protest of police shootings of unarmed black men such as Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and when the media wouldn’t let the story die, I started to form my own opinions. On one hand, I didn’t like that Kap was sitting during the national anthem, I thought it was disrespectful to a country that allows far more opportunities than most, if not all, other nations. In many countries, Kap would be executed for treason, but here, his only execution is in the court of public opinion. On the other hand, I totally agreed with his reasoning for it and I liked that he chose to protest peacefully rather than violently, which helps nobody.  Yet still, I felt the whole topic was tiresome and wouldn’t go anywhere so I didn’t get too invested. But then other players started kneeling. Kap’s teammates, particularly Eric Reid and Eli Harold, would kneel on the sideline with him. Brandon Marshall of the Denver Broncos knelt on opening night of the regular season. So many players started following Kap’s lead and it got me to thinking that maybe there was something more to this. The fact that so many players felt the same way as Kap should tell you that these guys are really hurting and I grew more sympathetic to their cause.

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From left to right, Eli Harold, Colin Kaepernick, and Eric Reid all kneel before a 2016 NFL game (photo credit: The Mercury News)

It became the talk of the season as various players displayed their own methods of protest. Some I loved (the black power fist, interlocking arms), some I didn’t (sitting). But regardless of your thoughts on the man or the issues at hand, Kap succeeded. He got us talking about the state of race relations in America again. I personally don’t care for some of Kap’s actions (wearing a Fidel Castro shirt during a press conference, wearing socks with pigs dressed as cops on them, never having registered to vote, etc.) but I would argue that the message he is trying to send is more important than what the man is himself. And if you believe that what these players are doing is disrespectful to the troops, I offer you this:

Unfortunately for Kap’s career, he took his stance during a contract year. He became a free agent and no team wanted to sign him. The Baltimore Ravens almost did, head coach John Harbaugh and GM Ozzie Newsome wanted to sign Kap but owner Steve Bisciotti overruled them. A lot of people were outraged that Kap remained unsigned into training camp when there were quarterbacks on NFL rosters, some even starting, who were far inferior to Kap, who was coming off a decent season. I honestly do not blame the owners for not wanting to sign Kap. In my personal opinion and through my evaluations of his performance last year, he isn’t good enough to be worth the media circus that would follow his signing. Should Kap be on a team? Based on some of the talent teams like the Colts and Jets have put out there, absolutely, from a talent standpoint. But on most teams Kap would be the backup and would you really want all these distractions storming into your locker room over your backup quarterback? Regardless of your opinions on his stance, his presence alone will bring more unwanted media attention than today’s NFL team already has. And while I fully believe he will have the support of his teammates, the NFL is a business and the bottom line reigns supreme and anyone who could negatively affect the bottom line will not find himself a spot on the team. It may have cost him his football career, but Colin Kaepernick was successful in his message.

And then Donald Trump did what he always does, puts in his two cents where nobody wants it. Below is a direct quote from the man in the Oval Office.

“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired. He’s fired…You know, some owner is going to do that. He’s going to say, ‘That guy that disrespects our flag, he’s fired.’ And that owner, they don’t know it [but] they’ll be the most popular person in this country.”

He also tweeted this out:

NFL players, of course, were none too pleased with his remarks.

NFL teams came out in full force to protest Trump’s remarks. Some teams, such as the Steelers, Titans, and Seahawks, stayed in the locker room for the anthem.

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Neither the Titans nor the Seahawks came on to the field for the national anthem following Trump’s remarks. (photo credit: The Daily Caller)

Mr. Trump, when you advocate free speech like you did for the Charlottesville rallies, you can’t be selective. You can’t say one form of free speech is acceptable and one isn’t. That’s not how it works. Either it’s all okay or none of it is. You might think you are being patriotic by telling people that what these athletes are doing is wrong and disrespectful. But your response to their actions are far more rude and offensive than their’s will ever be. I would argue that the players are being more patriotic than you are by enacting their constitutional right to peacefully protest. You condemn this:

But not this?

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White Supremacists rally with torches in Charlottesville, VA (photo credit: NPR)

The NFL is a brotherhood. When you disrespect one man, you disrespect them all. You couldn’t possibly understand why these guys choose to protest or what they’ve had to endure because of the color of their skin. You couldn’t possibly or you wouldn’t have said what you said. I can’t possibly know either, but the difference between you and me is that I at least have empathy, I try and keep an open mind. I used to dismiss this movement but I have learned to appreciate what they’ve had to go through and the fact that these men are really hurting right now and need support. Your open disrespect towards them is shameful, appalling, and classless.