Get Ready For The Real Tampering Fight

Illustration for article titled Get Ready For The Real Tampering Fight
Photo: Ben Margot (AP)

Sure, you people laughed about the new NBA-wags-its-withering-fingers-at-tampering story. Of course you did. You’re still drunk, high, and sleeping on the front lawn about the latest offseason. It’s what you do, because drunken no-limits you is the best you you’ll ever be.


But that’s not how things work in the pre-apocalypse. The things you mock now will be the nightmares you will rue in the future. Humans suck, and this how it starts.

Separate stories from Zach Lowe and Brian Windhorst of ESPN and Sopan Deb of The New York Times told us that some owners—the ones that never get to splash in the deep end of human acquisition in exchange for vast sums of cash—want something done about roster tampering. Mostly, as it turns out, because they are the tampered rather than the tamperers.

The Board of Governors’ meeting, thoughtfully held in that Xanadu of contractual purity and integrity known as Las Vegas, was described as “testy,” which is to say that fingers were pointed, fists were shaken, and profanities smeared the table. The ostensible villains were Kevin Durant and Uncle Dennis and Rich Paul, but the real enemies were all in the room. On one side were the folks who benefited from the new world order—Brooklyn, the Lakers, and Clippers, most notably—and the other side were the ones who didn’t—Dallas, Charlotte, and Milwaukee, most notably.

League counsel Rick Buchanan warned that strict enforcement of a largely toothless tampering rule could lead to snitch-on-snitch crime and a police state that commandeers everyone’s phones and would kill the league’s newest golden goose at the height of egg production. But we suspect that the owners who “want their league back” would be undeterred by that argument. In fact, they mostly look at the hard salary caps of the NFL and NHL with envy and are ready to sign up for more tyranny.

Now this is the part where you would rise up and say, “But the league’s never been more fun, it’s never been more 365-a-year, it’s never been more egalitarian and cashtastic,” and you would be right. But your argument would be beside the point because the central truth of all human development is in play here, namely this: Billionaires didn’t get to be billionaires by letting the system they built put them at a disadvantage. They’ll want a system that restores that advantage, or at the very least disadvantages their competitors.

This is why Buchanan’s sober analysis was almost surely met with, “Hell yes we want a police state. We don’t want a world where Uncle Dennis even gets past security. We want a tyranny where we are the tyrants.”


And this is where the fun starts.

It is also where the commenters to these tedious little screeds explain their world view, why they know more than the people inside the room and why anyone who doesn’t see it their way is an idiot. That and two billion dollars gets you an opinion that needs to be heeded. Everything else is barking at a moon that doesn’t listen.


Mostly, this is about power, and power does not ask for consensus. This is about whether the kill-tampering owners can get more votes between now and the beginning of CBA negotiations than the status quo defenders. This is about whether they can change the tone and goal of those negotiations, and whether they can be prepared for a long and protracted work stoppage that they will doubtless instigate. This is about subjugation rather than solutions, crushed dreams rather than conciliation.

This is the real reason Adam Silver gets paid: for keeping the billionaires from feeling aggrieved when they feel damned well aggrieved.


There aren’t that many NBA owners who also own or have familial links to teams in other sports—Reinsdorf, Kroenke, Benson, Dolan, Allen, Leonsis, Tanenbaum—but they all know and/or like the benefits of an inflexible salary cap. That’s a core of seven, more or less, and it doesn’t take much yoga for you to crane your neck and see other hardliners, like Michael Jordan (Charlotte), whoever is running Cleveland these days while Dan Gilbert recovers from his stroke, Herb Simon (Indiana), Robert Pera (Memphis), Glen Taylor (Minnesota), Marc Lasry (Milwaukee), Clay Bennett (Oklahoma City), Bob Sarver (Phoenix), Julianna Holt (San Antonio) and Gail Miller (Utah).

Against this would be a firm tampering-is-fine-by-us/don’t-screw-with-the-money-train group that probably includes Tony Ressler Et. Al. (Atlanta), Wyc Grousbeck (Boston), Mikey Prokhorov (Brooklyn), Mark Cuban (Dallas), Joey Light Years Lacob (San Francisco), Tilman Fertitta (Houston), Steve Ballmer (Clippers), Jeanie Buss And Her Band (Lakers), Micky Arison (Miami), Dan DeVos (Orlando), Josh Harris And The Hedge Fund 14 plus Jada Pinkett Smith (Philadelphia), and Vivek Ranadive (Sacramento).


This is an inexact list as well as a fluid one, because there are enough pragmatists on either side to jump ship if it looks like they might lose a vote, and there may be stubborn-but-silent votes as well. Nobody in sports media ever really ever covers the owners because, well, they’re not fun to watch and because the amateur general manager nerds can’t trade them. In short, don’t hold me to these sides.

But hold me to this: When owners meet and leak their dissatisfactions to the Lowes and Windhorsts and Debs and Sam Amicks, they’re pissed, and in this case they’re pissed because the only thing they believe protects small-market teams from becoming the new Rochesters and Fort Waynes and Buffalos is a tampering law that in its current form is a used Kleenex. They’re going to want to fight hard, dirty, and bloody for a hard salary cap that makes tampering genuinely difficult, because even Kawhi cannot cheat jackbooted math.


In other words, the free agency Mardi Gras has an excellent chance of ending rancorously if not self-destructively, and who doesn’t think THAT’S a good idea? Not because player empowerment isn’t a grand idea or because roster movement doesn’t keep interest in the game alive in non-game times, but because billionaires bludgeoning each other is always its own reward. In short, we’ve seen the overheated market in all its glory, and now it’s time for the next big thing in sports entertainment:

Massive self-immolation, from the mega-rich to the pretty damned rich. Anyone who doesn’t want that hates puppies, infants, vacations, and politicians being led away in shackles.


And now, because there are those of you who indeed hate puppies, infants, vacations and politicians being led away in shackles, we give you the comments.

Ray Ratto thinks the next growth industry in sports media is the repulsive bastards who run sports. And for that matter, sports media.