Culture of Hoops

A Tale of Two Sports Leagues: The NBA and NFL

2 Leagues

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been pondering what I wanted to do with my seventh annual Thanksgiving-ish NBA column. Normally this isn’t a task I have much trouble with, but as I worked through idea after idea this time around, none of them felt fitting for what I was trying to capture. I thought about doing a very traditional Power Poll, one of my personal favorites, but it seemed like a month of action wasn’t a large enough body of work to examine and judge. I considered doing an NBA MVP Power Poll, but it’s way too early to start talking about the MVP. They don’t even announce who wins MVP until the end of June, so why the hell would I waste my time and your time writing about it in November?

Since the plan all along was to release this thing around Thanksgiving, I played around with a number of Holiday angles … I spent an entire day trying to find the natural and rightful comparison between every team in the league and foods you’d typically eat on Thanksgiving, but it turns out I don’t eat thirty different foods on Thanksgiving so I had to start including things like forks and knives and ice cubes and I couldn’t in good conscience write a column where I was comparing an NBA team to a spoon or a salt shaker or any dumb stuff like that. I toyed with writing a Black Friday-themed column, but then I remembered Black Friday is a miserable day, so I scrapped that idea too. My apologies to any Black Friday shoppers who are reading, I just despise what that day stands for.

This Is Us/NBA crossover column? I have no idea how something like that would work, but holy cow has This Is Us been spectacular so far this season, so naturally I considered it. A WWE/NBA crossover column? This would’ve been right in my wheelhouse, but the Main Event match at Survivor Series left me a little bummed out so I decided that I better look elsewhere. An NFL/NBA crossover column? There we go, we’ve arrived at a winner.

I wrote that first Thanksgiving-ish NBA column at 4 in the morning on Black Friday in 2011. While normal people were sleeping and while degenerates were out shopping, I was laying in bed refreshing my Twitter feed hoping for some indication that the NBA lockout was going to end soon. A month of the 2011-12 season had already been lost and the two sides — the players and owners — had been meeting for weeks, and Goddammit, I couldn’t deal with many more basketball-less nights.

The first “The Lockout is over” Tweet I saw came from Chris Broussard and I’ve loved the guy ever since because he brought me the best news that I received in all of 2011. After an outpouring of additional Tweets from various media members who were racing to get the details out to the public came the early morning David Stern/Billy Hunter press conference that helped to provide some clarity in regard to what basketball fans could expect from the definitive “both sides have officially signed on the dotted line” resolution. Not long after this Holiday Miracle came an insanely aggressive and abbreviated Free Agency period that began only 17 days before the start of the regular season. Then came the Chris Paul trade debacle, then came a silly two game pre-season, and then on December 25th, 2011, nearly 200 days after the lockout began, the NBA was truly back.

There’s no quantifiable way to measure the overall “greatness” of something like a sports league, but with a great deal of confidence I can say that it’s quite possible that the NBA, in the midst of its 72nd year of existence, has never been better. Since the league returned from that brief hiatus in 2011 it has been charging full steam ahead without looking back. The league is more interesting, more entertaining, deeper from top to bottom and more popular than it was six years ago.

An increased emphasis and understanding of advanced stats and analytics has led to a revolution of ultra-efficient offenses that hunt shots in the paint and three-pointers like they never have before. The best teams in the league spread the floor with shooters at every position and make extra passes until these ideal shots are practically wide open. Basically, teams are coming closer now to perfecting offensive basketball than they ever have, and defenses are required to play harder than ever to combat this change.

The extended primes of the generation of stars that came into the league in the late-90’s (think Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowtizki, etc.) coincided with a rise of the new generation of stars (think LeBron James, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Durant, etc.) and this cycle has continued with the two generations of stars that have arrived since. 

A massive TV deal resulted in an unheard of salary cap boom and an incredible increase in the value of NBA franchises. In 2010 the Golden State Warriors and Washington Wizards were both sold, and the sum of those two sales was $1 billion. Earlier in 2017, Forbes valued 18 of the 30 franchises in the NBA at $1 billion or higher. 

Twitter and Facebook and Instagram turned into a nightly highlight factory for the NBA, and doubled as a place for players to show off their personality in ways that players who came before them never had the opportunity to. Media members have used these various outlets to break news quicker than ever before, turning events like Free Agency, the NBA Draft and the trade deadline into 24/7 events. 

A rising number in NBA League Pass subscribers and huge postseason TV viewership numbers help to prove that the league is steadily increasing in popularity. 

New NBA Commissioner Adam Silver immediately proved to be a worthy heir to David Stern, handling the first (and biggest) controversy of his tenure — the Donald Sterling situation — flawlessly and swiftly, gaining the trust of the players and the fans in the process. 

For the last six years the league has been in the hands of socially conscious, ethnically diverse, stylistically unique and highly marketable young players who handle themselves both on and off the court with impressive poise. 

NBA fans are having conversations about Unicorns and Super Teams and GOAT’s and petty player feuds and League Pass Alerts and fake trade proposals and Woj Bombs. Meanwhile, these are the secondary conversations that have been happening within NFL circles over the last six years, ever since the NFL ended their Lockout before any of the 2011 regular season had to be missed:

How long should Ray Rice have been suspended for for knocking out his girlfriend? Why are guys who smoke weed getting suspended longer than guys who beat women? 

Did Roger Goodell screw up Deflategate, just like he screwed up every other big event in his tenure as Commissioner of the NFL? 

Does this incompetent Commissioner really want $50 million per year AND a private jet? Does he not realize that NFL owners are fishing around about Adam Silver’s interest in taking over as NFL Commissioner

Why do former players keep killing themselves in ways where their brains can be studied after they’re dead? 

What’s going to happen when we can diagnose CTE in living humans? And what’s going to happen if a football player dies on the field after he got drilled in the head one too many times during a game? 

Do the player protests have anything to do with TV ratings being down? Or are TV ratings down because some fans know that Colin Kaepernick is being blackballed from the NFL and that pisses them off? 

None of these conversations are “fun” and yet, these are the things you mostly hear about if you’re having an NFL discussion that doesn’t focus solely on one particular game. Surprisingly, the one conversation that isn’t being had is probably the one that should worry NFL fans the most.

“Honestly I don’t care and I don’t think the guys in this locker room care whether this thing’s going to be around in 20 years because none of us are going to be playing.”

That’s a quote from NFL Players Union President Eric Winston. He was asked about the Collective Bargaining Agreement that expires in 2021, and his response indicates that a new agreement won’t be easily reached and that means a lockout is on the horizon. Winston took to Twitter to elaborate on those comments.

“Players have always chosen to be good stewards of the game because we are the game and quite simply, if the owners chose to lock us out again as they did in 2011, or if they continue to deny the health and safety risks of football, then they have signaled that they are not worried about the game in 20-30 years.”

So let’s summarize: the NFL is staring down a lockout in 2021, and the relationship between the two sides that need to resolve this issue has never been so strained. The owners are money-hungry (we know this) and richer than the players, and that combination of greed, wealth and stubbornness means it’s unlikely they’ll budge. The players are fed up with the billionaires who fought against improving player safety, increasing injury protection and providing additional medical benefits for retired players in 2011. And additionally, players don’t give a shit about the future of professional football. Can you really blame them? Do the owners of the teams or the fickle fans really give a shit about the future of the players who are putting their bodies on the line each week? It doesn’t feel like it.

That’s the biggest difference right now between the NFL and the NBA. It feels like there is a much more unified collective vision, and a far greater interest in both the past, present and future of the game in the NBA than there is the NFL. Even though the 30 NBA team owners are greedy, and even though players want what they feel belongs to them, and even though past NBA players have massive egos and constantly cut down the current talent, it still feels like ever since 2011 there is a much better understanding between the all sides (including basketball fans) and a renewed interest in capitalizing on the upside of the league. It’s as if the success that came after the lockout made everybody realize that they couldn’t afford to mess this up again, because they narrowly avoided disaster six years ago.

The next NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement is up in 2023, and I would be utterly shocked if we had a lockout. The league will be even more popular worldwide and more profitable in 2023 than it is now, and smart people will continue to have a steady dialogue between now and then to make sure all necessary adjustments to the CBA can be made in a timely fashion, and Adam Silver, the best Commissioner in pro sports by a wide margin, will be overseeing everything and making sure things run smoothly. NBA fans should be able to breathe easily.

I don’t have nearly the same amount of confidence in the NFL. I don’t know what will happen between now and 2021. Will TV ratings drop? Will our dink of a President continue to declare war on the league? What kind of advancements will be made in player equipment, and will those advancements come before we see a serious, life-threatening injury happen on a nationally televised game? Is it true that current players are being advised to save up their money so they can be prepared to go without an entire seasons salary in 2021? Most importantly, what happens once we get to 2021, when neither side is ready to give in to the other … are we really going to miss an entire season of professional football?

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it looks that way. Sure, there is still plenty of time for relationships to be mended, common ground to be reached and issues to be resolved, but the two sides are miles apart as of right now. When it comes time to negotiate, the Players Union will fight to the bitter end for what they want and refuse to give in — and let’s be clear, they shouldn’t give in. The 32 team owners will ostracize the players and paint them as a group of spoiled, soft, greedy and already overpaid athletes who have no respect for the history or the future of the game of football. Some fans will buy that garbage and side with the owners and Goodell (if he’s still around), and other fans will side with the players when they realize that if the owners and Commissioner actually had respect for the players or the game of football, then maybe they wouldn’t have tried covering up head injuries for years.

The NFL will continue to rake in money and attract millions of viewers every Sunday despite all of the very public issues it’s facing. It’s the most powerful sports league in the world and any sort of decline isn’t even close to imminent. But make no mistake, the ball could start rolling down hill at a faster speed in 2021 if the league goes away for an entire year.

If the NFL does disappear for one year in 2021 the NBA would gain from their absence. Four years from now the Golden State Warriors could still be an absolute powerhouse and in the middle of a 60’s Celtics kind of run of dominance. The Houston Rockets may be bombing 70 threes per game by then. The Philadelphia 76ers, Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks and New York Knicks will help to swing the balance of power back in the direction of the Eastern Conference. And we can’t rule out the possibility that LeBron James could still be playing at a high level in 2021.

It’s hard to predict exactly where the NBA will go between now and 2021, but what I learned in 2011 is this: Basketball Never Stops.

I’m not so sure about Football.

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