Why the NBA Needs to Be More Transparent with Its Discipline Policies

Josh Martin@@JoshMartinNBANBA Lead WriterMarch 7, 2013

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 22:  Blake Griffin #32 of the Los Angeles Clippers watches Serge Ibaka #9 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during a 109-97 Thunder win at Staples Center on January 22, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

Leave it to Blake Griffin to lend levity to a controversy—in which he is both a central figure and a victim—that's sparked outrage around the NBA.

Ever the social-media savant, Griffin tweeted out this idea for his next Kia commercial:

This was shortly after learning that Oklahoma City Thunder forward Serge Ibaka would not be suspended for delivering an Austin Powers-style judo chop to Griffin's nether regions during the Los Angeles Clippers' 108-104 loss on March 3.

Ibaka was slapped with a Flagrant 1 foul (subsequently upgraded to a Flagrant 2) and a $25,000 fine for his transgression. Nonetheless, he was in the lineup for the Thunder's next game, when they throttled the Los Angeles Lakers on March 5. 

Not everyone took the NBA's apparent lack of meaningful punishment as lightly as Griffin seemed to. Dwyane Wade was none too pleased to see Ibaka all but escape the wrath of David Stern unscathed:

Which should come as little surprise. After all, it was Wade who was docked a game for this karate kick to the groin of Charlotte Bobcats guard Ramon Sessions back in December:

LeBron James, Wade's close friend and teammate with the Miami Heat, was similarly mystified:

Sacramento Kings forward DeMarcus Cousins suffered a one-game ban for a knock to Dallas Mavericks guard O.J. Mayo that was almost identical to Ibaka's:

Naturally, "Boogie" expressed his disbelief in the league's latest ruling on Twitter, albeit by way of a retweet of someone else's words:

But no backlash to the NBA's treatment of "Chopgate" would be complete without a word (or 70) from Matt Barnes, a noted "bulldog" and one of Griffin's teammates with the Los Angeles Clippers.

Barnes is no stranger to the league's mystifying disciplinary procedures. He was suspended for a game back in February for this altercation with Minnesota Timberwolves big man Greg Stiemsma:

The first question that comes to mind is, are any of the latter three infractions any worse than Ibaka's invasion of Griffin's private space? Or, if you'd prefer the reverse, is Ibaka's any "less bad" than the other three?

The answer likely depends on how you judge intent, and more importantly, whether or not intent should even matter. Barnes' case is the one in which the intent to harm is most clearly decipherable, because he goes after Stiemsma multiple times, though the same could just as easily be judged in any of these four scenarios.

As SB Nation's Tom Ziller astutely noted, the fact that the league office issued a fine and upgraded the designation of Ibaka's foul is an admission (tacit or otherwise) that the contact in question was intentional, not incidental.

And, realistically, if even good intentions can pave the road to hell, as the old aphorism suggests, then what does it matter whether the offender in each case "intended" to cause harm or not?

The fact is, they all took swings of one variety or another—swings that could each be determined to be beyond the realm of incidental contact by people with functioning eyes and half a brain, to be blunt—and caused some measure of harm as a result.

If Ibaka's foul is, in fact, on par with any (or all) of the other three rekindled herein, then a second question arises: Why did Serge get off so easy?

These four cases are bound by more than just the nature of the contact involved and the attention such contact typically incurs. In addition, these instances, like all that are reviewed by David Stern, Stu Jackson and the powers that be in the league office, are subject to the effects of reputations and biases.

In most instances, bad raps tend to bite the perpetrators the hardest. The NBA's rulings in the cases of Cousins and Barnes seem to stem from each player's recent history of bad behavior. Cousins had already been suspended twice in 2012-13—once by the Kings and once by the league—prior to his crotch chop on Mayo, and he was already saddled with a perceived penchant for on-court immaturity.

Barnes, too, has long been known for his "bad boy" behavior, both on and off the court, and has been reprimanded several times accordingly.

Wade hasn't drawn the ire of the higher-ups quite as frequently as have those two, though his reputation as a "dirty" player still precedes him...and not without reason. What with tossing Mike Bibby's shoe into the stands, breaking Kobe Bryant's nose during the All-Star Game and laying the hit that ultimately dislocated Rajon Rondo's elbow (among other things), Wade has done more than enough to sully his own image to the extent that the league might not always look upon his actions so favorably. 

As for Ibaka, he's yet to establish much of a negative reputation in that regard, nor has he been the subject of the NBA's attention to the extent that his aforementioned peers have. Griffin, on the other hand, has been known to—shall we say—embellish the contact he takes. At least one of his current teammates has condemned him in the past for his flopping:

(Cue the Jon Stewart burn.)

It's unclear whether Ibaka's relatively clean record and/or Griffin's acting chops played any part in this particular ruling, but that's precisely the point.

If the NBA wants to avoid the criticism it's currently absorbing from its own players and steer clear of conspiracy theorists, then the league must be as transparent as possible when dishing out discipline.

If they're going to punish Cousins or Barnes harshly because they're repeat offenders, then they should say so. If they're going to bring the hammer down on D-Wade on account of a more vague set of circumstances, then say that, too.

And if they're going to pull back the reins a bit and administer a softer punishment for an infraction that's been dealt with in different ways at different times because of the disparate behavioral patterns of the figures involved, then make that as unambiguous as possible.

Such discrepancies in adjudication, when left unexplained, can and often do imperil the integrity of the forces that govern the sport itself.

Consider, for example, what's happened in the NFL with commissioner Roger Goodell. His reputation within the league has taken a huge hit in recent years, in large part because of the seemingly haphazard and arbitrary way in which he's enforced the league's rules regarding illegal contact.

And because of how severely he initially punished New Orleans Saints players for their alleged involvement in the "Bountygate" scandal, and the subsequent push-back from those players through the court system.

It's a matter that extends beyond sports but is particularly salient within this particular realm. If people don't know what the rules are and/or there doesn't appear to be much consistency as to how those rules are being enforced, then the people over whom those rules are meant to have power are more likely to disobey and disregard the rules entirely.

That's not a good look for any pro sports league, especially the NBA, which has dealt with its fair share of in-game lawlessness in the past (see: Palace, Malice at the).

Rather than going about its business as though players will respect the notion of adjudication without explanation simply because someone said so, the NBA would be wise to follow the example set by the NHL, under the (admittedly awful) leadership of current commissioner and David Stern disciple Gary Bettman.

To deal, in part, with hockey's problems with unnecessarily violent hits and the frightening injuries that often occur as a result, Bettman brought in Brendan Shanahan, a long-time player and notorious rule-breaker in his own right, to be the league's head disciplinarian in June of 2011.

It's been Shanahan's job to review hard hits from around the NHL, come up with a proper punishment if a given hit warrants such and explain, via video, why a particular punishment was or wasn't dispensed based on the regulations that the incident in question did or didn't breach.

The rulings haven't always been consistent—and some have drawn the ire of fans, players and commentators alike—but at least there's a way to keep track of the league's thinking in each matter.

The NBA would be wise to follow suit with a similar system of its own. The league has already used video in an official capacity to explain what does and doesn't constitute a flop, as well as to (in essence) publicly shame those who've engaged in the practice since the new rules were codified prior to the 2012-13 season.

Why not apply that same technology to all infractions of a "subjective" nature for which a player can be fined and/or suspended? Why not be clear about the methodology behind conjuring up punishments?

Perhaps there's some risk inherent in outlining the rules and corresponding penalties for breaking them too clearly. Players may be more willing to work around the rules when they know how to skirt them.

But that's a small (and rather hypothetical) price to pay for the certainty and order that result from a predictable set of standard regulations.

Unless, of course, the league would prefer to open itself up to further criticism and conspiracy from those who serve as its face.

Or worse, give players cause to take matters into their own hands


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