Selective Service

Photo by HooverStreetStudios

From where I sit there are lots of reasons to prefer the NBA over college hoops. Systems designed to enhance–rather than suppress–creativity; the ability to make jump shots; I could go on. The NBA is, of course, often accused (especially by fans of the NCAA) of a certain mercenary character; the money, they say, sucks the passion and loyalty right out of the game. We can debate the merits of this criticism another time (I tend to think that its mostly unfair and kind of misses the point, but, like I said…), but it does point to one of my most important reasons for preferring the pros. Both the NCAA and NBA rely on systems of exploitation. But in the NBA the exchange is explicit. The players are expected to churn through their bodies providing us entertainment and producing revenue for owners but, unlike their collegiate counterparts who are put to similar uses by their universities, they are compensated openly and handsomely for it.

Still, this is not an ideal arrangement. By agreeing to it (and who wouldn’t, right?), players are essentially consenting to become commodities. They are referred to as “assets” and “pieces,” and are bought, sold and traded as such. The movements and labors of their bodies are known as “the product,” and their inner lives deemed valuable only in the extent that they can a) foster their teams’ production or b) be packaged into digestible, televisable bits. And if the life of ease and comfort that all that money promises turns out to be a little more elusive than originally imagined (spying Mo Williams’s  acrostic “NBA: Never Broke Again” tattoo, one can only cross one’s fingers), it’s partially because the league’s investment ends when the player is finally physically unable to perform (it could be worse, though–just check out the NFL).

In many ways, the draft is a young fella’s initiation into this rather unpalatable system of exchange. Bodies are examined, categorized and bisected. Actions are dissolved into statistics and compartmentalized into video montages. Psychologies are expertly analyzed based on a precise algorithm of hearsay and casual TV watching. And in what has to be among the most uniquely un-free labor practices imaginable in a free-market democracy, these 19 and 20-year-olds are literally conscripted into service by their future franchises. When it comes to the NBA draft, the dictates of employer need, inter-league parity and the chance movements of ping-pong balls trump freedom of employment every time.

Hope I’m not sounding too fussy here. I certainly don’t mean to exempt myself from this judgment. Notice that, in below tying Elton Brand’s “value” to his excessive salary and diminishing on-court production, I took part in this very phenomenon. And in the coming days and weeks, we here at A Wolf Among Wolves will offer you quite a bit of that aforementioned analysis, video dissection and physical appraisal. We desperately want the Wolves to get better; the draft is their most important tool to that end.

As fans, its almost impossible to resist the allure of this peculiar institution. We get to imagine these young guys as fully flowered stars. We get to indulge in the hope that the teams we love will,  someday (or, better yet, in one decisive move) become something great. We allow them to become consumer items in order to feed our dreams of a better tomorrow.  I don’t mean to scold; this imaginative optimism is maybe the central fact of fandom and is an essential element of sports’ deep healing power. If it ends up getting sold to us in the form of a human commodity, well that’s just another discomfiting compromise in a world filled with them.

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0 thoughts on “Selective Service

  1. “As fans, its almost impossible to resist the allure of this peculiar institution.”

    As opposed to the other “peculiar institution” from history books? So it’s ok to enjoy it in this format? So the mere act of getting paid makes the difference? Getting paid suspends any moral or ethical concerns with referring to people as objects?

    Thanks for starting an article you didn’t finish.

    1. Rob,
      Certainly don’t mean to suggest that the money excuses anything–although the fact that the players enter into that relationship voluntarily and are heavily(!) compensated surely does mean something, especially when seen in contrast to the NCAA’s far more egregious exploitation. I just meant to point out that part of what makes the fan experience of the NBA so great and so meaningful comes at a steep price, as do too many great and meaningful things in our culture.

      And you’re right; clearly there’s much more to be said about the participation of fans and spectators in the commodification of athletes. My aim here was simply to get us to begin to question our own role in that system, basically to get the conversation going. Thanks for your comment.

  2. Nice post.

    I’m sure you’re aware of “Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete” by William C. Rhoden. Any glib comparisons to the original “peculiar institution” are going to be specious for the reasons you concede, but there is a serious argument to be made here and Rhoden makes it.

  3. Dear Ben,
    You must be kidding.
    Yes, in the draft the young players are scrutinized and selected. Their bodies are assets and they are evalued upon some physical skills. They are going to be paid millions (either in the NBA or in Europe) for their ability to put a ball in a basket, grab rebounding balls or block shots. Basically, they are going to be paid to play a game they are supposed to like (a lot).
    And you are, albeit indirectly, comparing that to slavery?!?
    I am a 27 years old corporate lawyer. I had to pay for my university and, notwithstanding the fact that there was no “draft” for wannabe lawyers, my future employers evaluated me on my track record (GPA) and on my ability to work at a desk for 15 hours a day without going postal (and I am going to lose my job if I am “finally physically unable to perform”). By the way, I do not enjoy a guaranteed deal, I do not have any endorsement agreement, I do not earn millions and so on.
    I brought my example: do you think that for other people (say, the **millions** of people in the USA who can’t find a job, those living on tips or any mother growing kids and working at the same time) the situation is any different?
    Want to childishly complain about how harsh and unfair the world is?
    Fine, that’s your right to whine, but **please** try with some kind of uncurable disease, the baby seals or some other soft haired puppy, not with young guys who are going to have the possibility to exploit some of their natural skills, be it being 7 feet tall or having a 50 inches vertical, to make ridiculous amounts of money one year removed from high school.

    1. Nick,

      I am totally not kidding!

      I appreciate that you have had to go through financial hardship, professional uncertainty and intense evaluation to get where you are today (as have I, as have lots of people, as you say). I submit, though, that you have never been paraded in front of those evaluators, plus TV cameras, in a pair of shorts and a tank-top and then had your physical body–the width of your shoulders and hips, the length of your arms, your muscle definition–relentlessly dissected. I would submit that you have never had your psychological makeup and professional worth thoroughly analyzed in print, on television, on the internet, by experts and non-experts alike. And that your high school and collegiate performance is not a highly visible matter of extremely public record. I would also suggest that you and I did not, out of college, enter a field dominated by a legally recognized monopoly, that we had our choice (more or less) of employers, and the opportunity to negotiate a salary.

      As someone who has some experience (though not as much as many others, by far) in the humiliation of selling my time and energies to employers I don’t care for, I acknowledge that its no picnic. I wonder, though, what amount of money makes said humiliation “worth it”? Especially when you recognize that most pro careers are very, very short indeed? And that for a wide variety of reasons–a brief, entirely exploitive collegiate career; the psychology of highly competitive athletes; the financial cultures of poor communities; absurdly poor decision making; the culture of celebrity, and many others–60% of NBA players are broke within five years of retirement? Especially when compared to the steep spiritual cost of being scrutinized, physically exhausted, and altogether commodified?

      You’re quite right to point out that lots of folks in the US and the world have it a lot worse, and that there are countless issues (incurable diseases and baby seals are good ones, though I prefer the whales and the forests) more pressing than the plight of pro athletes. Those are all things worth writing about; I’m writing about the NBA because I love it and because this happens to be a blog about the NBA. I would also argue though that a great many of those huge problems both current and historical–working poverty, environmental ruin, even the one where we enslaved an entire race of people–come down to one way huger problem, one that includes the way we watch and conduct the business of professional sports. That is: treating the world–its people, its ecosystems–as consumable objects.

      You know, as a matter of fact, I do want to complain about (or at least critique, hopefully not childishly) about the world’s harshness and unfairness. I happen to think that its a major drag. Thanks much for the comment.


  4. In a blogosphere rife with quick opinions, it’s nice to hear someone pose questions of depth, questions that won’t get answered in the comment field and rightly so. Problematize on Mr. Polk, problematize on.

  5. Ben,

    a quick answer.

    First paragraph: I concede that, obviously, media were not so interested in my hiring. However, I cannot refrain from thinking that such media attention is also one of the factors that allow such athletes to enjoy the fat paycheck they pocket monthly (basketball related income, anyone?). Apart from that, I highly doubt that measuring someone’s height, weight, wingspan, etc etc qualifies as a human rights violation (even thought the bench press measurement could qualify as an offence to human intelligence). Do you really mean that any of those who participated to a draft combine could have possibly been embarassed because they were standing “in a pair of shorts and a tank-top”? Really? I won’t even make any Greg Oden or George Hill joke here, because your position on the matter is already funny enough. I can clearly picture Wall not sleeping because of such humiliation. I can see Cousins leaving his breakfast untouched the next morning and Aldrich calling home, shell-shocked: “Mom, they measured the width of my shoulders in front of everybody! And people on the internet are going to make blog entries on that!”. Come on.
    Another thing in the first paragraph: I see you like the monopoly argument a lot. I really do not think that’s a monopoly. If you do not want to fall in the claws of those evil monopolists (and, say, endure the bitter fate of the Elton Brands, Richard Jeffersons, Eddy Currys, Jermaine O’Neals, Andrei Kirilenkos, Zach Randolphs, Predrag Stojakovics, Larry Hughes, James Poseys of this world) you can always play in Europe, China or in a minor league, where people is going to offer you a contract without measuring your arms’ lenght: “Hi John Wall, it’s me, your agent: I finally found a way to avoid you all this human rights violation called “draft combine”: I have an offer from last year Malaysian national title runner up! Yes, they say you don’t have to stand there in shorts and tank top and there will not be any TV camera to bother you!”.
    With regard to the privilege of not having to enter a field dominated by a legally recognized monopoly, I won’t even start telling you about the exhilarating experience of negotiating your entry salary as a newly graduated kid in an international law firm.

    Second paragraph: I like your point, pro athletes’ careers are short. However, it is not like those guys suddendly become unfit to perform “normal” works upon retiring. You’re 40, you’ve been an NBA all star and you’ve wasted the considerable wealth your basketball skills allowed you to amass (Hello, Antoine)? Even your own high school won’t offer you a job as assistant coach? Well, luckly enough you are still able to work! Welcome to the real life, hope you enjoy the ride the other started at age 24 the latest! By the way, be happy, no one will measure the width of your hips before offering you a job at the local McDonald’s! Yes, count one for human rights!
    Ben, working **is not** an humiliation, as long as you put passion in what you do. And if you think that playing a basketball game every two or three day in front of thousands of persons which hope your next shot is going in is an humiliation, man, you’ve never been humiliated in life.

    Third paragraph: the fact that you write in an NBA blog does not give you the right to avoid criticism when you write something, albeit NBA related, that your readers (or even one of your readers) disagree with.
    You may be willing to revisit your assumption that treating “people as consumable objects” or, to return to your blog entry, putting in place a selection mechanism that allows employers to try to select the employees that can perform a certain work better than the others is the cause of “huge problems both current and historical” next time you’ll have to undergo surgery. I’m pretty sure that you (and your commendable sensibility) wouldn’t be offended by the fact that the subject who is going to perfom an open heart surgery on you with that big and sharp knife has been subject to “the steep spiritual cost” of being evaluated even on some physical features such, for example, not having frequent hand tremors…

    World is harsh and unfair my fried, it has always been and whining about it won’t help you or anyone else changing it. Being harsh to this kids that enter the NBA today, voiding their contracts and banning them if they use any drug, requiring them to attend comprehensive classes on Antoine Walker and Latrell Sprewell will.

    Thanks for the answer,


  6. I’ve always found it interesting that a society so in awe of the free market and of sports doesn’t see a need to reconcile the two. Yes, players entering the NBA (and MLB, NFL, and NHL for that matter) via the draft will still make millions of dollars despite not being allowed to offer their services on the free agent market, but it would be difficult to argue they would not be making many more millions in a system that allowed them to consider multiple offers. All you need to do is look at the average contract given to a drafted baseball player next to a similarly talented Latin free agent.

    Personally, I’m a fan of neither the free market (such as it is) nor the exceptions to normal labor practices in the major sports leagues. But I do think that if we’re going to pretend a free market works, there should be no better arena to test it out than the sports world.

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