Paul George's catastrophic leg injury was horrible for him, of course, but rough too for the Pacers and for the NBA, which will be without him for a year. So it's not a surprise that everyone's reconsidering the calculus of international basketball, in which a whole bunch is risked for very little reward.
In response to questions about whether the NBA should even send its best and most valuable players to international competitions, commissioner Adam Silver released a statement declaring there's no pull-out on the immediate horizon. Silver's statement reads, in part:
"Injuries can happen any place at any time. The experiences our players have enjoyed by participating in their national teams, however, are ones that are unique and special in almost every other way. At this point, I don't anticipate a major shift in the NBA's participation in international competitions.
"It seems clear, however, that this will be a topic at our next NBA competition committee meeting in September and our board of governors meeting in October. And, of course, we will continue to evaluate the pros and cons of participating in international tournaments."
The pros are obvious. Aside from any accomplishment the players may feel from competing with their national teams, tournaments like the FIBA World Cup and the Olympics are fantastic marketing for the NBA's star players, and even more, for the growth of the game around the world. Basketball is arguably the most international of America's Big Four sports, and a significant level of that popularity feels like it can be traced to the Dreams Teams' participation in the 1990s.
The big, giant, obvious drawback to letting FIBA and the Olympics handle these star-studded tournaments is that there's no money in it, neither for the players nor for the NBA.
"If you look up stupid in the dictionary," Mark Cuban once said, "you see a picture of the USA Dream Team playing for free for corporate America so the U.S. Olympic Committee can make billions of dollars."
For this year's FIBA World Cup in Spain, the local organizing committee will receive all of the ticket revenues. It will receive about a third of marketing and sponsorship revenues, with the lion's share going to FIBA. FIBA will also pocket 100 percent of the largest revenue source, the tournament's TV deals.
Mark Cuban's been beating this drum for a long time—he happily whipped it out again after George's injury. He wants the NBA to create and run its own quadrennial World Cup. In FIBA's or the IOC's places, the NBA's owners would step in to collect the revenues. As Cuban said yesterday:
"The greatest trick ever played was the IOC convincing the world that the Olympics were about patriotism and national pride instead of money."
At the very least, after George's injury no one should ever criticize a player for declining to take part in international play. "It's for your country" doesn't fly when he's risking his health to pay the salaries of some FIBA or IOC executives.
But the NBA's plan is obviously self-serving. It's not concerned about its players. It's concerned about the value of its investments, and risking them without the possibility of reward. That's a bad way to run a business, and international competition is big business that the NBA has been trying to figure out how to get into for years. If it was up to David Stern, the 2012 Olympics would have been the last ones NBA players ever took part in.
There have been a number of good arguments against pulling NBA players from international tournaments. Lee Jenkins notes just how important summer basketball is to the careers of some players—including Paul George. But I'm partial to Tom Ziller's double-barreled argument: Not only should NBA owners not have the right to dictate what employees are doing on their off time if not specifically negotiated, but it's insultingly paternalistic.
It should be up to players whether they want to play for their country in the FIBA World Cup or Olympics. If owners want to stop them, they can negotiate that, either when the league's collective bargaining agreement is up or in individual player contracts. It's a right that players have, one that many (including Paul George) hold dear. If owners and GMs want to take away that right, players should be compensated in some way. This whole "father knows best" power-trip nonsense isn't going to work.
There's got to be a middle ground. One where the NBA shares in but doesn't usurp FIBA's revenues, and then turns around and passes some of that money along to the players themselves—perhaps in the form of a salary cap increase. International competition is fun and important and on the whole not dangerous enough to tear the whole system down. But if we're only talking about money, the players deserve a slice of the pie a lot more than the NBA does.