Should David Stern punish player speech?

Roy Hibbert was fined 75 large for one of two reasons:

1. He said something offensive and should be punished in order to deter NBA players from this type of behavior;

and/or

2. He said something offensive and the NBA felt the need to issue a statement (via Roy Hibbert’s checking account) to its corporate partners that it does not share the offensive views expressed by Roy Hibbert.

I suppose there’s a third rationale; one that’s so offensively paternalistic that I’d rather just hope it isn’t the case. That would be:

3. He said something offensive and the NBA felt the need to punish him so that he would think about why what he said was wrong, and change his views accordingly.

Personally, I think it’s a combination of reasons 1 and 2.

Reason 2 is legitimate from a business perspective. David Stern is a brilliant businessman and he sometimes rules with an iron fist with an eye on the greater good (read: league revenues). It’s in every NBA player’s best interest that the league remain lucrative — they’re paid as a percentage of receipts, after all — and Stern understands where the bread is buttered.

But Reason 1 is more interesting because it touches on free-speech principles. While I fully understand that the First Amendment doesn’t apply to non-government entities like the NBA, it’s equally true that professional athletes are public figures, uniquely empowered by celebrity and media platforms to drive important discussions. If you follow the league closely, you know that a lot of these guys have interesting things to say that enrich the fan experience of following their careers.

When Hibbert says “No homo” and chuckles during a widely-viewed press conference, there immediately ensues a fierce [social] media backlash. Fingers immediately start banging the keys until posts like this one go live. The Twitter engine runs hot for a good 24 hours or more. The discussion — in this case, the social [un]acceptability of making off-the-cuff gay jokes — is advanced forward.

What happens when the NBA takes the additional step of leveling Hibbert with a $75,000 fine?

Let’s see what NBA star Andre Iguodala thought of it:

I think it’s safe to say that Iggy won’t be repeating Hibbert’s error.

In fact it’s safe to assume Iggy will be careful not to say anything offensive in public.

That is good in some sense, right? Less offensive things will be said. Less people will feel hurt by those remarks.

But along with those averted slurs will be immeasurable cuts to inoffensive but highly insightful and entertaining speech. Few NBA players (or people in general) are blessed with a presidential ability to speak at once dynamically and filtered. If stepping beyond the line means a $75,000 check to the league office, you can bet players will stay the hell away from the line at all. There will be a lot more, “Both teams played hard,” and a lot less, “PRACTICE?!”

The NBA is well positioned to entertain fans via the personalities of the players. It seeks to exploit this advantage with things like in-game microphones during primetime telecasts. The more that David Stern dictates the content of player speech, the more those player personalities begin to feel corporately molded; disingenuous even. You can at the same time question what Hibbert said and also question whether it deserves a tangible punishment on top of what people across the worldwide web dished out this afternoon.

In his Motorpsycho Nightmare Bob Dylan sang that, “Without freedom of speech I might be in the swamp.” Roy Hibbert remains dry and safe from any shotgun-wielding farmers, but you can bet he received the message and won’t be romp and stomping through any more post-game pressers.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Should David Stern punish player speech?

  1. Alberto Super

    I’m calling bullshit on this fine… While as a pro athlete you probably shouldn’t make off color comments, Stern should be more offended at all of the stupid flopping ruining his game. Those fines should be the 75K variety. Once again Stern has his priorities out of wack.

  2. Matt

    Nice article, I think you’ve pretty much captured the situation. I also strongly agree with Alberto.

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