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.
Financially speaking, club soccer is inherently unequal. In comparison to American sports leagues, which have established salary caps and regulations that teams must adhere to, soccer allows for teams with wealthier owners to spend almost as much as they like. The establishment of the UEFA Financial Fair Play Regulations (FFP) in 2009 was meant to be a landmark decision in addressing problems facing European clubs, yet these laws were never meant to even the playing field. Rather, FFP aims to prevent clubs from spending more than they earn, a common practice up until that point as teams gambled with their finances in hopes of promotion to a higher league or qualification for the UEFA Champions League, for example, which would bring considerable additional revenue. A 2009 UEFA review found that more than half of all European clubs were losing money on an annual basis, with roughly 20% of these clubs thought to be losing money at an unsustainable rate.
Presently, clubs are slightly more financially secure across the board compared to the pre-FFP era, yet inequality has only grown due to the unprecedented levels of spending from certain top clubs, especially those who are directly or indirectly state-owned. PSG, controlled by the Emir of Qatar since 2011, as well as Manchester City, controlled by Sheikh Mansour of UAE since 2008, were the #2 and #3 highest net spenders on transfers since 2012, sitting only behind historic giants Manchester United. The idea that a club can almost “buy success” is off-putting to many soccer fans, as despite there being a financially unequal nature to the sport, this was usually due to teams having sustained periods of success and a rich history. Yet, the case of Manchester City of such a phenomenon, as they were a historically average club that was in the the third tier of the English Football League as recently as 1999, but has since won the Premier League title six times since their Emirati takeover.
While the controversy surrounding state-owned clubs has usually centered on its effects to the game itself, the political nature of a nation owning a team has been discussed in recent years due to accusations of sportswashing, defined as the use of sports as a means to improve reputations tarnished by wrongdoing. Its use as a political instrument can be seen as early as the 1936 Olympics held in Nazi Germany, with the global love of sports proving to be incredibly effective in distracting the public away from controversy. The 2021 takeover of Newcastle United by the Public Investment Fund (PIF) of Saudi Arabia came under considerable scrutiny in the UK due to the extensive corruption and human rights violations committed by the Saudi monarchy. Many saw their presence in the Premier League, along with their other major investments in sports such as the LIV Golf tour, as a way to improve its public image, and the sale was under the threat of failing for months due to pressures from other clubs and the public to prevent the deal from going through. Yet, as a recent article from The Athletic revealed, the British government had a vested interest in sealing the deal due to their burgeoning economic relationship; emails from the British Foreign Office showed a plan from the PIF to invest $30 billion over a 10-year period into the UK.
Where soccer will go from here is unclear; there have been extensive violations of FFP from teams like Man City and PSG, with recent charges against City claiming over 100 breaches of regulations over the last decade. Yet punishments in the past have usually been limited to fines, which serves little to no purpose when dealing with clubs that have nearly unlimited resources. Addressing the political sphere is incredibly important too, as instances of obvious corruption are still too commonplace; the decisions to award the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar, respectively, serve as a reminder of the extensive corruption and sportswashing present in soccer’s highest organizations. For fans new to the game these developments truly taint the image of the world’s most popular sport, what’s meant to be the beautiful game, and provide an additional layer of inequality that goes a step too far.