During a televised intra-squad scrimmage of the U.S. Men’s National Basketball team in their preparation for the upcoming World Cup of Basketball, Paul George, a star basketball player, broke his leg. The word used most frequently to describe the injury seems to be “horrific.” It was an open fracture of the tibia and fibula. Almost as soon as George had been carted off the court and the rest of the scrimmage canceled, the predominant story among the media became variations on the question, “What will Paul George’s leg injury mean for the future participation of NBA players in international competitions?” The thought running through my mind has been, “What does the reaction to Paul George’s leg injury mean? Why is this the media’s reaction? What can we learn from it?
The implication of the Paul George story that’s been percolating is this: now that a star player has been injured in a national team activity, NBA players should stop taking part in international competition. Who does this make sense for? There’s three main actors in this power play. There’s the NBA owners who employ the players. There’s the players. And then there’s the fans. Not to get all political science on you here, but they nicely represent Capital, Labor, and Consumer. Let’s go through this one at a time:
Fans of the Indiana Pacers, the team that Paul George plays for in the NBA, are upset today. They just watched the best player on a team, someone who they’ve grown fond of after watching him play since he was twenty years old, snap his leg on national television. George will probably be okay, the surgery is said to have been successful but it’s not clear how okay the Pacers will be. They’ve been the second best team for two years running in the Eastern Conference, but there’s no guarantee that they’ll even be that good when George comes back in a year. Their second best player, David West, is in the final third of his career and may not be as good then. They lost their third best player, Lance Stephenson, in free agency, and their fourth best player, Roy Hibbert, is a riddle wrapped up in a seven foot enigma.
All that said, it’s hard to argue that the fans as a whole lose from international play. Basketball fans love basketball and international basketball is wonderful to follow and to watch. Furthermore, if you’re a fan of one of the other fourteen teams in the Eastern Conference… well, you’re not crowing about it but your team’s path to the finals just got a little easier. As a consumer of basketball, international play is a net win for you, a fact even the most depressed Indiana Pacers fan would admit if you stuck her with truth serum.
Paul George certainly lost out in this particular case. His leg is broken and he won’t be able to play basketball for another year. The players as a group, however, only gain by playing internationally — with a few exceptions. The first thing to understand about this is that contracts in the NBA, unlike those in the NFL, are guaranteed. George’s contract, which begins this year, runs for five years and $91.5 million dollars. His injury does nothing to affect that. Of the other players playing in that scrimmage, only one of them is slated to become a free agent in the next twelve months. Basketball players, even during the offseason, play basketball. It’s just what they do. They may take some vacation but most of the time during the offseason, they’re in gyms, playing high intensity basketball against the best players in the world. This injury could have happened in any practice at any time and the consequences physically and financially would have been the same. Playing in international competitions doesn’t increase the risk of injury for most players and it has great potential value in the form of professional development and exposure for sponsorship or endorsement deals.
The one major exception to this are players who, for whatever reason, feel or are compelled to play in these competitions, even if they are injured. Yao Ming, the Chinese great, forced his 7’6″ body up and down the court every summer for China and it almost definitely shortened his career and lowered his earnings in the long run. The solution to this isn’t to get pros out of these competitions, it’s for countries not to force their players to play.
One last point about the players. The likely alternative to having professionals play in these competitions would be to have amateurs, mostly college kids to play. The cost-benefit for them is significantly worse than for the professionals. College athletes don’t have guaranteed contracts. In fact, they’re not “paid” at all. If a college athlete broke his leg like George did, he might never get drafted, never make a fortune, never have a dream career. Let’s not have the grownups vacate something not-so-risky so that kids can take it up even though it’s more risky for them.
The NBA Owners
NBA owners don’t make any money directly from international competitions. It’s probably worth writing that again. NBA owner don’t make any money directly from international competitions. The downside of their players playing is exactly what happened on Friday. The Pacers owner is likely to make tens of million dollars fewer this year without Paul George than he would have with him playing. The upside? It’s hard to measure. Professionals playing in international competition definitely attracts new fans to basketball who then become fans of the NBA. Players who come through uninjured often benefit from the experience and become more valuable employees.
That’s why the story of this injury quickly became “Will this mean that NBA players no longer are going to play in international competition?” It’s because team owners, who employ the players, don’t want their players to play in international competition. At least they don’t want the players to play (to be allowed to play if we tell the truth about it,) without the owners getting paid.
As fans, I don’t think we should take the owners side on this one. I love watching international sports with the best players in the world competing against each other and it’s really not a bad deal for the players, not even for Paul George, truth be told. So resist the urge to take up the owners side on this issue!