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The NBA's Dumb New Tampering Rules Are Rolling Out

Photo: Kevin Winter (Getty)

So, this is silly: The NBA Board of Governors unanimously passed a stricter package of anti-tampering rules. Small-market teams scared of voracious big-market rivals, teams recently burned in free agency, and teams who just want to vote in lockstep so as not to look suspicious—whatever their varying incentives, everyone fell in line to approve the new measures. Owners don’t like feeling that their employees have options, and so, here we are.

What punishments now await teams who choose to proceed with business as usual? “Suspending executives ... taking away draft picks ... voiding contracts ... all those provisions are on the table,” league commissioner Adam Silver told reporters in a conference. “The ultimate goal is compliance.”

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Silver said he didn’t feel fines were enough of a disincentive; at least on that front, he’s probably right. Any team with a chance at landing Anthony Davis would gladly eat a $10 million fine, plus some.

The commissioner confirmed that he will have the ability to seize and review communication devices if he chooses to do so, though he said he “does not want to,” ESPN’s Tim Bontemps reported. As it turns out, this isn’t a new development: Silver already had that power, thanks to vague language in NBA bylaws, as ESPN clarified Thursday. But the enforcement will be ramped up, and even the idea of random audits has been floated.

The NBA police state is now alive, but it all still looks so feckless and hollow—which might be one reason teams might’ve been willing to go along with it. Any GM with an interest in signing a franchise cornerstone for nine figures is also surely willing to sit down for two minutes and figure out how the Signal app works. Any front office that still manages to leave behind incriminating digital evidence in 2019 probably deserves to get its picks snatched. But keeping up a whole charade of thumb-twiddling compliance until the clock strikes on free agency is surely a waste of everyone’s energy. Enforcement of these measures on player-to-player communication, in particular, could get very, very ugly, should the NBA idiotically wade into those waters.

As misguided as these proposed measures are, they are vaguely gesturing at a real issue. NBA superstars are moving in strange, chaotic ways. In order to lock in the money they deserve, they sign long contracts, which trap them in situations they might have to publicly protest their way out of. All parties—teams, players, agents—can probably agree that there are structural problems that need solving, but it feels safe to assume that those problems would be better solved by novel contract structures and a CBA than by sifting through Magic Johnson’s voicemails.

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This is a labor issue masquerading as a compliance issue. One of those topics is a lot easier to yap about and legislate around than the other, though, so, here we are, with a handful of hard-assed rules that are likely to address none of the underlying problems.

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