Sometimes, issues are cut and dry. The NBA wants fans to see some nuance in its push to turn the Olympic men's basketball tournament into an under-23 event and focus its attention and resources on the FIBA World Cup, formerly known as the FIBA World Championship. It'd be in that event, under a deal worked out between the NBA and FIBA, that all the top NBA stars from the United States and abroad would be allowed to compete. The Olympics would see only the youngest players, not just for Team USA but for all teams.
Needless to say, the Olympic tournament would continue to be dominated by Team USA -- even teams as deep as Spain and Russia don't have near the firepower in their youth ranks to compete with Kyrie Irving, DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis. You'd get the blowouts we see now, only without LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Tony Parker and the Gasols. It'd be a weak tournament that falls even lower on NBC's broadcast totem pole and appeals only to hardcore NBA fans enduring withdrawals.
Want some evidence? Check out the attention surrounding the Olympic soccer tournament ... Exactly. Most footie fans are far more concerned with the long wind-up to the 2012-13 club season than watching deep prospects and a few vets fight for medals few will remember. (Despite the issues with Olympic soccer, our crack team continues to cover it in excellent fashion. As they cover everything in excellent fashion.)
There has also been some suggestion that medical concerns -- particularly about inconsistent international standards for when players shouldn't play with an injury -- are playing a role in the push for under-23. The idea is that, working directly with FIBA, the NBA can ensure there is a consistency in treatment and precaution among the 50 or so teams in play for top competition. It would ensure that Jan Vesely of the Czech team, Al-Farouq Aminu of the Nigerian team and Kobe would all get the same level of treatment when playing internationally. This is a great idea ... and there's absolutely no reason the NBA couldn't do it right now. FIBA runs the Olympic basketball tournament for the most part. It determines who gets invited. It contracts the referees, administers the first level of discipline and is essentially responsible for ensuring it goes off without a hitch. If the NBA was concerned about medical standards in international play, it would already be working with FIBA to protect its players.
Is that impossible with the International Olympic Committee in the picture? If so, why on Earth are we going to continue to subject our youngest stars, American and otherwise, to the tournament? Is it OK because they have $20 million contracts, not $100 million deals? Nothing about the under-23 idea actually fixes this problem of inconsistent medical care. It's a red herring.
This is all about greed, which is frankly nothing new for the NBA's front office. A year ago we lost Summer League and 16 regular season games per team because of greed. This deal is about the NBA and FIBA taking their balls and going home because the I.O.C. deigns to profit off its popular basketball tournament, which features NBA players. The NBA and FIBA would rather make the World Cup the sport's signature international competition and funnel the LeBrons, Kobes and Paus in that direction.
But no one in the United States cares terribly about the World Cup right now. The ratings in 2010, starring Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose and Kevin Love, were absolutely anemic: just 900,000 viewers tuned in for the championship game between Team USA and Turkey. There are a couple of ways to read that. Either fans just don't understand or care about the World Championship because, hey, aren't the Olympics more important? Or that youth draw, even with a bumper crop (the 2010 team was, by happenstance, primarily under the age of 23 as LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Kobe all sat out), is not exciting to the American public. Or that NBA fans really don't care about international play, but will tune in when a gold medal and/or redemption are on the line.
None of these excuses help the NBA's case for an under-23 rule.
But the biggest problem of all is that it's the owners, led by David Stern, who are pushing the idea ... with no input from players. Frankly, this should be a collective bargaining issue. The NBA has not previously widely restricted players' participation in international competition during the offseason; individual teams have declined to clear individual players due to medical reasons, but national team insurance against the player's NBA contract is typically involved. (See Luol Deng, the Bulls and Great Britain.)
A blanket age restriction on participation in a particular competition would seem to merit discussion and negotiations between not just the NBA and FIBA, but the players as well. Kobe is on the record calling the idea stupid. I imagine other patriotic players (especially internationals) have similar feelings. I don't imagine the players' union nor the league are spoiling for another legal fight, but that's what the NBA could face if it moves forward without working out a deal with players first.
A phrase that's been used to defend the NBA's under-23 rule is that owners are just "protecting their investments," which is supposed to make us believe that the players' well-being is what's on their minds. Bulls--t. The investments the owners want to protect are the ones they made in their teams. This is simply another revenue stream to flog for maximum profit. To suggest otherwise is to insult fans' intelligence. But hey, the owners did that throughout the lockout, too. Maybe we should just get used to it.
The Hook is a daily NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.