Woop!-woop! That’s the sound of da (NBA image) police.
The NBA’s latest attempt to make its perceptively Black league more palatable to a mainstream audience is to crack down on cursing. Of course, there have to be boundaries on what players say even beyond the obvious of avoiding slurs — I’m not explaining why Black people using the N-word on the court does not qualify. If you don’t get it, pick your ostrich neck up out of the sand.
Players shouldn’t be motherfucking referees or children or cussing out reporters in press conferences for asking difficult but respectful questions. But those situations aside, this is 2022 and the NBA is a product consumed mostly on cable television and social media. Bob Costas feeling that LeBron James doesn’t carry himself with the level of class that Michael Jordan did because of a frequent use of language that wouldn’t have met NBA on NBC broadcast standards shouldn’t be the sensibilities the NBA governs itself by, but here we are.
Sports Illustrated’s Howard Beck’s latest story is about the NBA cracking down on profanity this season by dealing out the most fines that it ever has for that offense since data was made available in 2003 — around $95,000.
“We gotta be better,” NBA president of league operations Byron Spurell said to SI. “This is about league standards and making sure we have the right look and feel and demeanor to our game, on and off the court.”
This is a new age. Charles Barkley’s “I am not a Role Model” commercial is no longer polarizing. Personalities are always what have sold this league, but players don’t have to smile as wide as how Brent Musburger once described Magic Johnson, saying he “lights up a television screen from here to Bangor, Maine.”
Fans of the league like myself were cultivated through the NBA Home Video and NBC era. Highlights weren’t a click away in 1993, so to watch your favorites it was necessary to rewind and play the favorite parts of your NBA Jam Session video tape so much that it almost caught fire. Then on Saturday morning, the off the court access that we got to the players was on NBA Inside Stuff where we saw Michael Jordan in his backyard or David Robinson playing the piano. Yes, David Stern, your evil plan worked and you hooked this kid and many others onto your league, rest in peace.
Forget that young people today have never seen a video tape, they aren’t even familiar with the concept of appointment television. Today, they play video games with players, and get alerts when they post a new Instagram story. They follow beefs on Twitter, and laugh while shaking their heads at Giannis Antetokounmpo’s dad jokes on Tik Tok. The “Hulu Has Live Sports” commercials are fine, but that’s not why NBA was the No. 1 trending Google search in 2021. Fans connect with NBA players as if they know them. They can put names, and maybe more importantly voices, to faces. How many people know what Deebo Samuel sounds like, yet Tyler Herro is the title of a Jack Harlow song.
The players aren’t simply jersey numbers and names, we get to experience them as full human beings more than any other sport. And guess what, human beings curse. Not all, but certainly quite a few.
That doesn’t mean press conferences should be turned into dirty nightclub routines, or players should do like The Rock when interviewed on the court and call the Madison Square Garden crowd 18,000 pieces of trash or worse, but the emotion and feeling should always be expressed. That’s part of what helps create conflict that makes stories, and more interesting games. How are the young “we don’t dodge the smoke, we run up the chimney,” Memphis Grizzlies going to respond against Draymond Green and his unzippable mouth? How will the Philadelphia 76ers handle the curmudgeonly Jimmy Butler?
Don’t fine them for flipping off the FedExForum crowd or lightly pelvic thrusting after watching a teammate make a big play. It’s entertainment, let them be entertaining. In Beck’s story Demarcus Cousins was even warned about the foul language that he used in a story on Andscape, and while nothing on this is in stone, league officials told Beck that they aren’t opposed to punishing players for foul language on their podcasts in the future.
I get that it’s a new world, and it’s kind of weird that people can freely curse on the internet and it’s easily accessible. It was a bit easier decades ago to forbid children from bringing parental advisory music and R-rated movies into the house, but how can a parent prevent a child from foul language on something that’s supposed to be “family friendly,” like sports.
Millennial and Gen X parents, you weren’t shielded either. Your friends cursed, some of their parents did too. You watched and listened to whatever you wanted, you just didn’t view or listen to that material in front of your parents. It was already a losing battle. How parents deal with cursing is up to them, not to the NBA. Its job is to make your product as entertaining as possible, and if part of that is Kevin Durant and Green cursing on podcasts and Twitter, leave them be.
The sense of a true human connection with these players is the NBA’s one true advantage over the other major American sports. The best way to stay in competition, and ahead of most, is to lean all the way in. The more the fans develop a true relationship with the league, the more likely they are to stay. Ahmad Rashad and video tapes did it for my generation, and now the athletes are doing it themselves. Don’t stomp it out NBA because it’s a little blue, let it grow because the people that follow and like that foul language are your future season-ticket purchasers.