I have a recurring dream every four years.
I’m at home, watching weird sports on TV, and then a basketball game starts. Not in my apartment, but on TV, are the best players in the world, sharing the ball joyfully, and making elite competition look like cardboard cutouts.
Mark Cuban and presumably other NBA owners think the International Olympic Committee have had a dream scenario in that they get the marketing power and bodies of the NBA’s finest talent for free, while the owners hold the risk of the player getting injured or returning fatigued.
Never afraid to embrace the role of a victim, Cuban has led the charge to increase awareness of the issue that he presumes someone in Europe has called him a dumbass.
The actual issue is of course about money, but Cuban raises a legitimate financial concern in that NBA contracts are guaranteed, and if a player hurts himself during the Olympics and has to miss a portion of the NBA season, teams receive no compensation of any kind and the owners still have to pay the players.
NBA contracts contain clauses prohibiting dangerous activities, such as moped riding, and teams can void a contract if a player injures himself doing something unsanctioned while away from the team. However, the Olympics are protected from this clause, as if players were participating in summer league games or team workouts.
Teams obviously want their players to stay in shape through the summer, and injuries can happen anywhere, but you can’t compare the emotion involved in playing in the Olympics to playing in the NBA summer league, and injuries happen when emotions trump logic. Also, very few established NBA players participate in summer league, meaning that most of Team USA would spend the summer merely working out on their own if they were not in London.
Not only is the risk of injury greater while playing in the Olympics, but perhaps more importantly, the doctors assessing the injury are paid and instructed by their national team. This means that their approach to treating the player is focused on the short-term goal of winning the tournament, as opposed to an NBA doctor who would have the direction to protect the multi-year, multi-million dollar investment.
I’m not claiming that Olympic doctors are treating broken legs with Robitussin, or implying any sort of medical malpractice by Olympic trainers, but USA basketball has absolutely nothing to lose and no potential liability if Kevin Durant plays through a twisted ankle and makes it worse.
The proof and precedent for the risks NBA owners face have existed in Europe for decades, and top soccer clubs often have public arguments with national teams over player injuries. Most recently and notably, Arjen Robben returned from the 2010 World Cup with a two-inch hole in his thigh muscle, despite playing in five of the Netherlands' seven games, including all of the elimination matches.
Robben initially tore the muscle playing for the Dutch National Team right before the World Cup, but the injury was misdiagnosed by Dutch doctors and treated in a way so Robben felt no pain, moving freely on it through the World Cup Final. Once Robben returned to his club, Bayern Munich, an MRI revealed the giant tear, and Robben would miss two months or more of the season to recover.
Understandably outraged, Bayern merely wanted the Netherlands to pay Robben’s wages they would be forced to pay while he sits out. Despite clear negligence by the Dutch in this situation, one of the most powerful soccer clubs on the planet had little to no recourse when challenging a national football association. Soccer clubs all over Europe have voiced similar frustrations with players injured while representing their countries, but in almost every situation, no compensation was awarded to the clubs.
Getting back to basketball, NBA owners don’t want to put themselves in the same situation, which is remaining in the current situation. No other business exists where a company is forced to loan out its primary assets for free, and with no recourse if they are returned damaged.
Imagine you are the owner of a prestigious art museum, and once every two years (players go to the World Championships too), a distant descendant of Picasso just took 12 of your most valuable paintings to a week-long international art festival, made millions of dollars showcasing the art, and while they are mainly returned without incident, you incur all the liability if any are damaged, while receiving none of the money generated. No licensed lawyer would agree to such an arrangement and any conversations to start such a loan in any industry would be a nonstarter.
Speaking of lawyers, NBA Commissioner David Stern supports Cuban and has publicly said he wants an under-23 tournament in Rio in 2016. Stern even said the NBA thought about prohibiting NBA players from competing in the Olympics but that would have deterred a lot of international talent like Yao Ming from joining the league.
The popularity of basketball (and NBA stars) has reached such heights that the Olympic stage isn’t needed to showcase the sport to the world, but you better believe the IOC makes a significant portion of its revenue profiting off of Team USA. Stern, Cuban and other NBA owners aren’t used to being on the butt-end of unfair arrangements and want to put a stop to it.
Basketball is one of the biggest attractions at the Olympics, and Stern and Cuban believe that wouldn’t change if the athletes were 23 and younger. NBA teams have multi-million dollar operating incomes and some franchises are worth close to a billion dollars. Much of that ability to generate millions of dollars in revenue is driven by the star power of franchise players like Kobe Bryant, Lebron James, and other members of Team USA. NBA owners recognize that their ability to generate revenue is directly tied to their teams star players, and it's easy to understand why they don’t want to take the risk of losing that potential revenue in the name of satisfying American expectations.
But what about the fans?
Is it really in the best interest of the game of basketball to deprive fans of seeing the world’s best talent on the biggest international stage? Nothing is final yet, but Stern is working on a proposal with FIBA to hold a World Cup of Basketball where the NBA would get the major portion of, if not totally control, the revenues generated.
I think the idea of a World Cup of Basketball is a long way from being a competitive, compelling tournament. The World Cup of soccer is such an attraction because so many countries have a legitimate chance to win it. America would watch a basketball world cup because we love star athletes and anything we’re good at, but would the rest of the world really care to watch the battle for silver and bronze?
Personally, I’d rather not wake up to a World Cup of Basketball. Call them the Dream Team, Redeem Team, Esteem Team, whatever—just keep calling them Olympians.