Friday, January 8, 2010

The NBA's image problem

This isn't the first time that the National Basketball Association has dealt with an image problem. Over the past several years, the NBA has had to contend with drug issues, the Detroit Pistons-Indiana Pacers brawl which spilled over into the stands, charges of racism and the league being out of touch with black athletes and the hip-hop culture, and off-the-court incidents involving Jayson Williams, Dennis Rodman, Latrell Sprewell and referee Tim Donaghy, to name just a few.

The latest incident--the one involving guns, Gilbert Arenas and Jarvis Crittenton--has now evolved into a story which cuts deeper than two teammates displaying weaponry in the Washington Bullets locker room. New stories on the incident are suggesting that gambling was at the core of the disagreement and that the popularity of gambling, among NBA players, may be the cause for many in-team clashes.

William Rhoden, writing in today's New York Times, said "guns and gambling both threaten the league's credibility." Most of the gambling takes place on team flights and during down time before and after games when players are seeking ways to handle the demands of travel and abundant time away from the court while on the road. What started as card games now, more often than not, include monetary stakes that can quickly become quite large. And, as Rhoden points out, the salary of a star like Arenas can be quite different, and larger, than an NBA rookie or journeyman player.

NBA Commissioner David Stern took quick action against Arenas, suspending him indefinitely. Stern's actions were based more upon Arenas' cavalier attitude towards what happened in the locker room and his past, consistently bizarre behavior. The latest revelations seems to suggest that Crittenton may actually be the player who had a loaded weapon, meaning that he not only violated expectations of him as an NBA player, but also gun possession laws in the District of Columbia.

How Stern handles Crittenton, and how teams and/or the league police in-team gambling, will have huge impact on the success of the NBA as it enters this new decade. Given fewer and fewer likable--and marketable--stars, the league had better get it right.

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