The NBA and Commissioner Adam Silver are at a crossroads. Another clip of superstar guard Ja Morant flashing a gun on Instagram Live made its way around the internet early Sunday morning, two months after serving an eight-game suspension for doing the exact same thing in a Denver nightclub. Following the first incident, Morant announced that he would take some time off to “work on learning better methods of dealing with stress and my overall well-being” and had a short stint in a Florida treatment center. A PR campaign ensued that insured the public and Silver that Ja had changed and matured; he admitted he had made poor decisions in an interview with Jalen Rose, but asked for forgiveness and made a promise that he would strive to be a better role model moving forward. Silver shortly lifted the suspension after talks with Morant, and he returned to the Grizzlies. And yet, here we are two months later with a nearly identical situation despite the many promises from Morant.
While the blame for the incident falls squarely at Morant’s feet, the fact that it almost replicated what previously occurred is an embarrassment to the NBA’s response policies to such events. In cases of misconduct, athletes have always been treated with extreme leniency due to their position, especially somebody as talented and marketable as Ja Morant, but to have him commit a repeat offense shortly after Silver and the league stood behind him in his promise to be a better role model will almost certainly lead to a severe punishment. The initial punishment aimed to “rehabilitate” Morant and allow him to receive help that he stated he needed, yet this second incident shows that this rehabilitation was nothing more than a shallow PR campaign that made no major changes to Morant’s behavior.
Moving forward, the league has to consider how willing they are to defend their athletes in situations like Morant’s. Simultaneously preserving their product and taking a stand against misconduct is a balancing act that most professional sports leagues have not figured out, with weak responses from leagues to domestic violence cases leading to a push for harsher punishments. Yet, for cases like Morant’s or Kyrie Irving’s, who was suspended eight games earlier this year (by his former team, the Brooklyn Nets, rather than the NBA) for sharing a link to an anti-semetic film, which are not illegal per se in the eyes of the law, the conversations are muddier. There has been universal backlash to Morant’s second incident, but how the league will choose to punish him will be very telling of their stance in cases of moral wrongdoings, especially to do with star players; rumors from NBA insider Adrian Wojnarowski already hint at a possible “lengthy” suspension to start next season. When he inevitably returns, it will be very interesting to see how the league attempts to support him, as his prior return made assurances that further inappropriate behavior would not be tolerated. Whatever the ultimate result is, all eyes will be on Morant moving forward, and he must prepare for the extreme scrutiny he will face when he is back on the court. His behavior has already cost him severely; he is ineligible for a supermax contract, which would have added $40 million to his 5-year, $194.3 extension he signed last summer due to missing the All-NBA team this year, which was heavily influenced by his suspension. His star-status has protected him so far, but publicly embarrassing the NBA as he did Sunday will not be taken lightly by Silver.