This is the biggest week in pro basketball’s off-season. Over the past week, avid interest in the big news and minute details of both the NBA draft and free agency has swept up citizens of the basketball world. I consider myself a hoops citizen in good standing and, as such, I’ve tried to follow the speculation and the breaking news stories, but I’ve found my heart’s really not in it and I’ve started to wonder why. The draft’s big news that Jahlil Okafor dropped to the three spot or that the Knicks’ Phil Jackson drafted Kristaps Porzingis left me cold. How about today’s free agent signings? Is DeMarre Carroll going to make the Raptors better? Was he worth the money they paid him? I don’t care.
To begin with, with few exceptions, I’m not all that invested in the year-to-year vicissitudes of the different teams. I do understand that some people are and perhaps this just says something about the nature of my fandom, which primarily skirts identification with particular teams. I lived in Ann Arbor for about 15 years and was on and off again a fan of the Pistons, but only when they were good and even then, I found myself easily thrilled by a great individual performance by another player, even when it came at the Pistons’ expense. Now for the last few years, I’ve lived near Cleveland. I tried to get into the Cavs, but found that I only could do so when LeBron James returned to the team. So to the degree that draft and free agency excitement is driven by fans’ investments in the fortunes of their teams, I’m just not built to thrill to the changes this moment brings.
Don’t get me wrong, I love basketball, and not just great individual performances. I love great team performances as well. In each of the last two finals, though I was hoping for LeBron’s Heat and then Cavs to win the championship, I found myself enthralled, in spite of myself, at the beautiful, varied shapes and movements that San Antonio and Golden State generated on the floor. But I don’t care about those franchises or those cities as such, any more than I care about the Cavaliers or the city of Cleveland as such. I don’t care how they do next year. I think such entities, perhaps, are too abstract to stir my emotional and aesthetic sensibilities. I’m more likely to be thrilled by particulars, by concrete moments, by events, by actual people than by institutions (like franchises) or abstractions (like “the city of ‘x'”).
And this might illuminate another source of my aversion (which some friends have pointed out to me): that these two events—the draft and free agency—mark the apex of the basketball world’s commodification of its players; or rather, the apex of their explicit, unabashed commodification and therefore a moment in which we may be most likely to lose sight of their humanity. I’m no economist and it may be controversial but I think commodification can be understood as
The subordination of both private and public realms to the logic of capitalism. In this logic, such things as friendship, knowledge, women, etc. are understood only in terms of their monetary value. In this way, they are no longer treated as things with intrinsic worth but as commodities. (They are valued, that is, only extrinsically in terms of money.) By this logic, a factory worker can be reconceptualized not as a human being with specific needs that, as humans, we are obliged to provide but as a mere wage debit in a businessman’s ledger. (From Dino Felluga)
Players are most obviously fungible bodies during this period, in which their rich individuality as human beings and athletes is reductively quantified to a particular potential value added and/or a dollar amount. That is to say, I guess, that in a sense this is the moment when a life is turned into a abstraction.
Of course, given the context of the NBA as a capitalist cartel, I am certainly pleased to see players get paid, pleased to see each of them exercise what leverage they’ve acquired through their excellence in order to take advantage of the rare opportunities they get to cash in. And I have been excited to see former students of mine from the University of Michigan men’s basketball team enter the draft. But that’s mostly because I know them, know their dreams, and am happy to see them live them; just as I am happy to see the student whose dream is to live in Paris, pick up and move there after graduation. But these exceptions just highlight for me that the way in which this process gets talked about among fans and media observers for the most part disheartening, even embarrassing in the same way that when occasionally a non-sports fan friend of mine will ask some seemingly naive question about sports, it tends to jar open a defamiliarizing abyss in my own investment in sports so that—having no ready answer—I’m suddenly launched into an existential crisis about why I spend so much time in sports.
Sure, I always come around: the heart wants what the heart wants and “the heart,” as Pascal said, “has its reasons which reason can’t understand.” But still, the trading of flesh—regardless of the price—bums my heart out. I know, of course, the commodification of human beings is not just a problem in sports and I think it’s unfair for others to single sports out as some sort of egregious exception to how the rest of the world works. Every for-profit enterprise entails the reductive transformation of concrete labor and of labor’s concrete creations into fungible quantities to be measured against one another: manufacturing, journalism, and of course, higher education. In that sense, sport is no different, no worse perhaps and perhaps no better.
But perhaps because I care about the language of sport and in the ideas and values this language reflects, conveys, and reinforces, because, in other words, I am a citizen of basketball, I find myself wanting a space in which, even in the midst of breathlessly reporting the slide of some prospect down the draft board or some surprise free agent pick up, we could pause to also talk about the bigger processes with which we’re complicit.
Here I imagine some readers—the few still with me after I defined commodification, I mean—shaking their head at my naivete. Or others, resentfully pointing out my hypocrisy (I enjoy the fruits of this system even as I criticize it) as a means of protecting their pleasure against a critique. I want to say that I really don’t want to appear judgmental of anyone’s fun here. Comparisons are odious, including comparisons of relative exploitation. But I get that the exploitative commodification of NBA players probably isn’t and shouldn’t be tops on the list of the world’s injustices. And I’m certainly not claiming that making space for this would change anything about how those processes work. So on those scores at least, such readers can relax.
But it certainly couldn’t make the world worse if we had more room to talk about how it felt to be—or even to watch others be—commodified, reduced to some quantitative measurement, traded. Maybe even, if we talked about those feelings, we’d be more in touch with them, and more in touch with the unpleasant aspect of them. And maybe then, if enough of us were more in touch with them, we’d start to look for another way to organize ourselves and our varied, concrete capacities to make new things in this world, whether those things are books, basketball shoes, or basketball plays.