With the opening of the Team USA minicamp in Vegas this week, the American basketball world is focused on international hoops for what may be the last time before the Rio games kick off in 2016. In addition to rampant speculation over who will make the final squad, and drooling over potential rosters, this camp will also invariably spark new debate over the participation by NBA players in international play.
Mavs owner Mark Cuban has long held the mantle of opposing NBA player involvement in international competition. He does so not on the basis of traditional arguments in favour of the principle of amateurism, but rather based on the specious view that NBA teams are getting screwed because the IOC and FIBA are profiting off of NBA players without compensating their teams or the league. He argues that NBA teams are taking all the risk, without benefitting from the arrangement.
Unfortunately for Cuban, under the current agreement between FIBA and the NBA, there isn’t much he can do about it. At present, it is up to NBA players to decide for themselves whether or not they want to play for their countries. Teams can only prohibit a player from taking part if there is a “reasonable medical concern” motivating the decision (as is the case this year with the Spurs and Manu Ginobili). Absent such a basis, teams can only attempt to subtly influence a player’s decision (as Cuban reportedly did with Chandler Parsons in 2014). Of course, teams cannot be prevented from factoring the likelihood a player will play internationally into decision-making around contract negotiations – though they cannot prohibit a player from partaking as a term of a contract.
While Cuban’s concerns are understandable, particularly in light of the recent season-ending injuries to Paul George and Dante Exum, his views are short-sighted and based on a fundamental misunderstanding of his relationship with his team’s players.
To begin with, participation in international competition is good for players and for owners. Players do not get paid to play for their countries, but it does pay dividends by helping them build their brand. Besides winning an NBA championship, MVP or maybe a scoring title, there are few honours available to an NBA player that outrank playing for the USA in the Olympics or World Cup. The exposure and prestige that come with wearing the red, white and blue factor into contract negotiations, endorsement deals and any number of other financial opportunities. NBA players in international competition is also good for the NBA. It raises the profile of the game internationally and makes Olympic and World Cup competition marquee events in the global basketball calendar, putting NBA players on centre stage outside of the traditional North American market.
Most significantly however, Cuban’s remarks reveal a fundamental and troubling misunderstanding of his relationship with the players that play for his team. Cuban needs to understand that he and the other owners employ their players, they do not own them.
NBA players are paid, handsomely, to play in 82 regular-season games, any playoff games their team qualifies for, and to show up for practice and other mandatory team functions. When an NBA team enters into a contract with a player, they are agreeing to pay them for those services, just like any other employment contract. An NBA contract may include certain other terms intended to limit risk – terms like, no sky-diving or hang-gliding or running with the bulls. These terms may well be reasonable and, if both parties agree to them, unobjectionable. If Cuban simply wanted the right to negotiate a no international competition term into player contracts, that would be a fair point.
Cuban wants much more than that, however. What his criticism implies is that he feels that NBA teams should have an exclusive right to profit off of their players. This is a radical departure from the standard employment contract model and would be akin to suggesting that a factory worker can’t bag groceries on the weekend without the factory getting a kickback. It would also be a major departure from the traditional nature of NBA contracts. Players have always used their spare time to earn extra income in a way that does nothing to further the interests of their teams. If Cuban wants USA Basketball to compensate him for engaging his players, he should also demand the same from Nike or Adidas or McDonald’s or any other company that uses his players as spokesmen. While the risk of injury may be lower, it is certainly conceivable that a player could be injured shooting a commercial or attending a promotional event.
What Cuban fails to understand is that NBA players are people, not assets. An NBA contract is a substantial investment, but it is an agreement to provide a service, not a transfer of ownership. Having a player under contract does not give a team or an owner the right to dictate what players do with their free time, and certainly does not grant them an exclusive right to the profits generated by those players. While Cuban’s concerns about potential injury is understandable, he needs to accept that the risk of injury simply comes with the territory of being an employer.