The Dark Side of the Draft: A Response to Scott Kenny

This is a perhaps needlessly wordy response to an earlier post by Scott Kenny. That post basically praises AI9 because he isn't a scumbag who (1) abandoned his club through free agency or (2) allowed off-court factors to influence his free agency decisions.

After rec'ing Mr. Levin's response, I spent my evening commute wondering, why the hate? I wanted to post something about this hate, but it seemed too long for a comment, so I'm sticking it here.

It is important to remember that each of the players listed in the earlier post was drafted. They did not choose their first clubs. To me, it is unfair to accuse someone of abandoning a team or a city they did not willfully select.

North American sports leagues currently adhere to the logic that allocating the most valuable assets to the least effective management groups is best for the cartel as a whole. Free market capitalism this ain't. Personally, I'd rather watch the super-teams a less constrained market might allow,'s their league. However, if they force human beings to go somewhere to work for someone, not so much against their will but without giving them a say, creates certain problems when the chance to leave arises.

The draft system ends up injecting "loyalty" into the discussion when the player finally obtains some meaningful measure of freedom. (Aside from the "freedom" to abstain from the market entirely by abandoning professional basketball...hardly a contextually relevant freedom.) As a result, the leagues most valuable assets (its top players) get scorched by the cauldron of emotions unleashed when they are seen as leaving their old team and fans behind.

I think sports leagues need to better understand the passions underlying fan loyalty. I'm no psychiatrist or psychologist, but the anger directed at those who "leave" seems to come from a far darker place than mere concern over how to replace the departed player's production at power forward. In the sports world, this anger erupts most clearly when the entire franchise does the leaving. The Brooklyn Dodgers, Baltimore Colts, Cleveland Browns, and Seattle Supersonics cut deep wounds in the communities and fans they abandoned. But after decades of standing on the sidelines for these moves, the leagues have grown more aware of the need to manage the negative forces relocation unleashes. Both the Browns and Sonics were required to leave their intellectual property behind. The names, colors, logos, records...those remained in the places they were loved.

After the "Decision", it appears clear that the departure of a franchise player through free agency can create a rupture every bit as traumatic as relocation. Ignoring this, to me, would be no less irrational than allowing the Baltimore franchise to call itself the Browns, or Oklahoma City to have "Sonics" emblazoned on its jerseys.

I think the draft should be taken out of the equation. If a player is going to be despised for "leaving", we should at least allow him to chose where he plays. And it's not like the draft is the only way to run a railroad. Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle were never drafted. They were never blasted for leaving people behind....even though they literally left people and places behind in a manner akin to that done by countless people every day in all walks of life. In a pre-draft era, those men left San Francisco and Oklahoma, respectively, and signed with the Yankee juggernaut. Those men became heroes...hailed as titans of their sport, not vilified for what they left behind in pursuit of sporting glory.

While that era arguably suffered from a less than optimal level of competition (and an overabundance of myth-making writers), the direct signing of young talent was only one factor in the competitive imbalance. It's not much of an exaggeration to say that in those days, the Yankees could sign everyone then control them for life. Roster caps, salary caps, and free agency--all modern creations--might well be sufficient guarantors of optimal competitive balance without the additional and wildly inefficient safeguard of a draft.

If Chris Paul initially signed with the Lakers for less money than he might have received from a "lesser" market, wouldn't that have been indicative of his burning competitive desire to be the best on the biggest stage with its most prestigious franchise? What's wrong with that? To me, that is exactly the type of person that makes sports compelling.

As for hating a player because he includes off-court factors in a free agency decision, well...that's understandable, even if it isn't right. It is funny that we expect monk-like purity from participants in one of life's more frivolous endeavors...but we do. At least with this criticism, it involves something he chooses to do, not something the powers that be force upon him.

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