The Futility of Fines in Pro Sports

Following Oklahoma City Thunder’s close loss to the Los Angeles Clippers last Saturday night, MVP candidate, Paul George let his frustrations be known:

“It’s just bad officiating … We don’t get a fair whistle. We haven’t gotten a fair whistle all year. Somebody has got to look into this. It’s getting out of hand.”

Interestingly, as Reddit user u/Ih8reposts pointed out, the Thunder are actually the recipients of the 3rd most foul calls in the entire league, suggesting that perhaps the referees don’t hate them quite as much as Paul George would have us believe. Regardless, the NBA (in its usual fashion) was quick to respond, handing out a $25,000 fine to George, in a continued attempt to crackdown on players calling out officials. What is noteworthy, is that the player himself had in fact foreseen this:

“I’m going to lose money on this … We speak up, we lose money. There’s nothing I can do to change that.”

This prediction highlights two things. Firstly, players are aware that speaking out against officials in a critical fashion will likely result in a hefty fine. Secondly, they do not care.

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Paul George’s performances this season have amongst the best of his career. [Photo Credits: Mark D. Smith @ USATODAY sports]

In 2018, George signed a massive contract extention, pledging his services to Oklahoma City for the next four years, in exchange for a healthy $136,911,936. The slashing forward in his 8th year in the league is expected to take home upwards of $30 million this season alone. According to figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average yearly salary for 25-34 year olds is $42,640. Therefore, a fine of this magnitude (58% of their yearly earning) would certainly provoke the average person to tow the company line (and mostly likely lose their home). However, for Paul George, this fine represents less than 0.1% of his earnings. If the fine is going to be such an irrelevant figure for the athlete, it does beg the question whether it is worth handing out in the first place. Several Scandanavian countries have adopted the so-called ‘progressive penalty’ system, which dishes out fines for offences based upon annual income. In 2015, this resulted in businessman Reima Kuisla being dinged €54,000 for a speeding infraction. Surely, by making the fines impactful, the NBA would have more success in convincing players of their sincerity.

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Chris Paul withholding the ball from Scott Foster whilst Coach Doc Rivers reacts in despair. [Photo Credits @ yahoosports.com]

We can see that the NBA has punished players for speaking out against its rules. Another famous example occurred in 2012 when rather than a specific player being penalised, the entire San Antonio Spurs organisation was fined a quarter of a million dollars for resting key players. The Spurs were in the midst of a gruelling away trip, although had managed to win their last five games. This game against rivals, Miami Heat, in Florida was set to be the sixth and final game of the away trip, as well as the fourth game in just five nights. As a result, legendary Spurs coach Gregg Popovich decided to send Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobli, and Danny Green back to Texas before the game took place. Ultimately, the Heat prevailed by a score of 105-100. A competitive game that saw the Spurs in control for extended periods. However, as a nationally televised match up between two of the top teams, the league decided to send a message to coaches that they would not tolerate it. Once again, whilst $250,000 is a massive fine by most standards, to an organisation worth $1.6b it is a splash in the water. Perhaps even a worthwhile or indeed savvy sacrifice for giving key players some much needed rest.

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Spurs’ Head Coach, Gregg Popovich is amongst the most successful and well-respected coaches of all-time. [Photo Credits @ clutchpoints.com]

There are two principal arguments at work here. The first being: should players and teams be fined for being outspoken towards officials/breaking the rules? The second is, should the fines be adjusted to actually become a significant deterrent?

Another famous example occured during the 80’s. Whilst it seems now that most premier players in the NBA, and indeed the English Premier League have their own signature shoe deals, Michael Jordan was one of the athletes who championed this movements. Albeit, not without adversity. Historically, players were permitted only to wear white sneakers, which naturally lead to controversy when Jordan, the league’s premier star, backed by the biggest sports brand in the word, Nike, began flouting the rules. However, the risk paid off, and Jordan sneakers became one of the most pre-eminent sporting brands on the planet brings in an estimated $3 billion dollars per year. Nike were more than happy to cover the $5,000 per game fine as it was pocket change compared to the revenue generated by Jordan’s name, his play, and indeed this controversy. The lesson learned from this experience is that it is ok to flout the rules as long as you are successful enough. It is clear that the NBA either needs to increase fines to a level where they may actually have an impact, or look into other methods for enforcing its codes of conduct.

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$5,000 a game in fines did nothing to deter Jordan and Nike from building one of the most successful apparel companies of all-time. [Photo Credits @ wallpaperflare.com]

Now, as twisted as this logic may be, there is an argument to be made that the ability to break rules based on your financial situation runs deep in American culture. In fact, whilst NBA basketball players represent prominent figures in American culture, the hypocracy is present from the top-down, starting with President Donald Trump.

The important thing to distinguish is that athletes are only limited in what they can say in regards to the NBA. Teams are permitted to appeal against suspensions and league officials are now required to publish a written statement justifying their decisions on the court. Therefore, these fines are not meant to act as a deterrent towards free speech. Rather, they are in place to encourage members of the association to adhere to the agreed upon code of conduct. Likewise, where would we be if high-school sports players began overtly disparaging officials in person or on social media? It is important for athletes at the highest level to demonstrate conduct which permeates positively throughout a sports culture, if not there may no longer be a sports culture to speak of. Just as a lawyer in courtroom can not tell the judge they are an idiot, a player can not tell the referees that they “fucking suck,” as 76ers star Joel Embiid delicately put it a few weeks ago.

In 2017, NBA global superstar, Lebron James became the athlete with the highest amount of retweets for a single post. How did he achieve this accolade? By going toe-to-toe with the President of the United States… and calling him a “bum.”

Each year the championship winning team is awarded a visit to the Whitehouse to meet the President. When superstar Stephen Curry expressed concerns over the trip were the Golden State Warriors to win again, President Trump subsequently pre-emptively uninvited Curry, prompting backlash from Curry’s fiercest on-court rival, Lebron James.

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Barack Obama congratulating close personal friend, Stephen Curry, and the Golden State Warriors for their championship season. [Photo Credits @ sport.yahoo.com]

This demonstrates that despite giving out fines for bad conduct within the league, athletes are allowed, and indeed praised for speaking up or speaking out against perceived injustices. A fine will be imposed for disrespecting a referee or their decisions, but calling the President of the United States a “Bum” is perfectly acceptable. If Donald Trump wishes to act like a petulant child in charge of the invitations at a birthday party, it is incredibly refreshing to have a league which champions an athlete like Lebron James, who can call out this behaviour and be rewarded for it. James is in many ways the perfect ambassador for a sports star. Endowed with enormous pressure since high school, the only thing more impressive than his ability and performances, is the way that he has conducted himself over the past 20 years. For a player who has transcended the sport, it is vital that key-figures in the community can speak out and question it. Thankfully, the sport has figures like James, who are willing to play by the rules for the most part and set a good example, but are also willing to take a stand and encourage society to think for itself.

[Photo Credits: Jason Miller @ Getty Images]

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