C-3P-No: Chris Paul, David Stern, the fourth wall, and McCulloch v. Maryland

In a matter of hours last night, the following events occurred, in sequence, beginning around 8:00 Eastern:

  1. The Hornets, Rockets, and Lakers agree to a trade that would send Chris Paul (aka CP3) to Los Angeles, Lamar Odom, Louis Scola, Kevin Martin, and Goran Dragic to New Orleans, and Pau Gasol to Houston. Or something like that.
  2. The NBA and the re-formed players’ association finalize the new collective bargaining agreement, officially ending the lockout.
  3. David Stern, on behalf of the league, nullified the trade for “basketball reasons.”

In trying to understand what happened here, citing “basketball reasons” is pretty unhelpful. I suppose it’s preferable to “bocce ball reasons,” but still. Stern ostensibly was acting on behalf of small-market owners, including Cleveland’s Dan Gilbert, who objected to the deal. What he won’t tell you in this conversation, but everyone else knows, is that the league owns the Hornets.

I know that leagues sometimes deny trades because they’re unfair as a general matter: if a team is just dumping all its players to another team, there can be competitiveness concerns that damage the sport as a whole.

When the league, or the commissioner, also plays the role of owner of an individual team and acts like an owner of an individual team, it threatens to shatter an understood reality of sports. Every Day Should Be Saturday compared Stern to WWE’s Vince McMahon, and it’s a casual comparison that’s tough to quibble with. The reality of professional sports that we understand is that the league commissioner is supposed to exist above and outside the league, holding it within its defined parameters of operation. When a commissioner reaches inside to meddle with specific actions of individual teams, though, it challenges the understood reality. Leagues and commissioners have been uncomfortably close to individual teams before, and baseball commissioner Bud Selig saved his Milwaukee Brewers from contraction when they probably should’ve been contracted, but even Selig hasn’t intervened in trades involving the Brewers.

Every analyst I have heard or read last night and this morning agrees that the trade was a fair one that made the Hornets better. Paul is a free agent at the end of this shortened season, and he publicly expressed his desire to play for a different team. A trade now is the most beneficial thing for New Orleans; Paul’s value as a trade piece will be nothing once he’s a free agent. If Stern blocked a deal that improves the Hornets, one has to wonder whether he would approve of any deal that sees Paul leaving the team. We need a better explanation that “basketball reasons” to understand what happened here and what the NBA’s official Chris Paul policy is going forward.

I expect the league will lean heavily on the rationale that other owners were protesting the trade on the notion that “what the lockout was all about” was keeping big-market teams (i.e., Miami) from assembling all-star lineups. It’s fine if that’s what the lockout was all about, but if so, then that’s what the lockout was about. The lockout now is over. The teams and players agreed to a new system that, we can assume by their agreement, resolved their concerns. The new agreement put in place policies that were designed to cure whatever ills led to the disagreement in the first place. Probably (surely!) the best analogy for this disconnect on the part of the protesting owners is McCulloch v. Maryland, the 1819 Supreme Court decision involving the Second Bank of the United States. What really was going on behind the scenes was a battle between the views of two Founding Fathers, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. America’s new constitutional system was freshly in place, and, from Madison’s perspective, the bank proposal was contrary to the spirit of that system and a serious threat to it. Hamiltonian thinking (AH was assassinated in the summer of 1804) was to the contrary, however, and it won the day. Under that view, the federal government could do whatever the Constitution allowed it to do, and the Court agreed that the Constitution authorized the creation of the bank.

Even though some of the Founders (i.e., Madison) thought that creation of the bank was contrary to the constitutional system’s vision, it was not contrary to the Constitution itself. In the case of the NBA lockout and the Chris Paul trade, the protesting owners track Madison: they want to maintain the newly created arrangement in pristine state, unmarred by those Hamiltonian operatives (i.e., Paul, the Lakers, Rockets, and Hornets) who are ready to jump into action and play within the newly established parameters. This trade does not violate the terms of the new collective bargaining agreement. If, in the minds of some, it violates some spirit of that agreement, the result is not that the trade also violates the agreement; rather, it is that the agreement has failed to live up to its values.

All of this, of course, is aside from the obvious conflict of interest mentioned at the beginning that the NBA has in owning the New Orleans Hornets. If the league is willing to intervene on the team’s behalf to block a deal that would improve the team but see the departure of a marquee player, the league should’ve first inserted itself and forced the Utah Jazz to sell their name to the NOLA franchise. Then! I’d be more likely to believe good (if unstated) intentions on Stern’s part here. This is a troubling first act for Stern post-lockout, however, and it’s worth noting that he took this action only after– but mere moments after– securing the players’ execution of the new collective bargaining agreement.

I wrote that the NBA lockout was more interesting and entertaining than actual NBA games, but if the post-lockout NBA is going to be like this, the NBA just may have kept this fan on board (and that even after Shane Battier brutally ditched Memphis for Miami via tweeted Jimmy Buffet reference).


3 thoughts on “C-3P-No: Chris Paul, David Stern, the fourth wall, and McCulloch v. Maryland

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