Originally published in Bloomberg View
Jason Kidd and Mike Tomlin are naughty boys who deserve to be punished.
On the night before Thanksgiving, Kidd, the head coach of the Brooklyn Nets, directed one of his players to bump into him so that his soda would splash onto the court. The Nets were down a basket in the final seconds of a game against the Los Angeles Lakers. They were out of timeouts; the little spill bought Kidd's assistants some much-needed time to set up a final play. The Nets still lost.
On Thanksgiving night, Tomlin, the head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, almost certainly prevented a touchdown by standing on the edge of the field during a kickoff return, forcing the Baltimore Ravens's Jacoby Jones to veer around him—slowing Jones down just enough to ensure that he'd be tackled from behind. The Ravens wound up with just a field goal, but they beat Tomlin's Steelers anyway.
Both coaches issued unconvincing denials after their respective games. Kidd claimed that the cup had slipped out of his hands. "Sweaty palms. I was never good with the ball." (Clever!) Tomlin said he hadn't realized how close he was to the field.
It's hard to muster much moral outrage toward either Kidd or Tomlin. But cheating can't be condoned, and what's interesting is how differently the two leagues seem to be reacting.
The NBA fined Kidd $50,000, which isn't nothing, especially considering that "spilling" some liquid on the court is a time-honored stall tactic in basketball. But Kidd made more than $3 million playing for the Knicks last season. He will make $10.5 million coaching the Nets over the next four seasons. Even if he gets fired—for all of the team's off-season acquisitions, the Nets are off to a terrible start—he is guaranteed $7.5 million. In other words, the NBA's response was basically: That was funny, Kidd, but don't do it again.
The NFL, for its part, is in the midst of "an aggressive review" of Tomlin's actions. There will surely be a fine, but the Steelers might also lose a draft pick, which would be a serious blow to the team.
Why such potentially disproportionate reactions to such seemingly similar acts of mischief? One explanation is basic economics: Football is much lower scoring than basketball, which makes the value of a point, however it's realized, a lot greater. Also, the NFL has far fewer games, so each one is that much more important.
Here's another reason to consider: What if what we're really talking about here is the nature of the two sports, and the attendant styles of their respective commissioners? Basketball, like baseball, has the luxury of cute stunts. Football is dangerous enough—far too dangerous—when it's played strictly by the rules. David Stern has the freedom to be impish, to give a little wink every now and then. Roger Goodell does not. Football may be fun to watch, but as Tony Dorsett will tell you, it's not a game.
Jonathan Mahler is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.