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.