As the headlines about the NFL’s inability to regulate its own league continue to dominate the sports news cycle, the National Basketball Association (NBA) is dealing with its own scandal involving the Atlanta Hawks front office. While moments of off-the-field controversy challenge the leadership of American pro football and basketball, the way the NBA handles its business stands as a counterpoint to the NFL’s incompetence.
On Sept. 7, Atlanta Hawks owner Bruce Levenson announced his intention to sell the team due to the leak of a racially-charged 2012 email in which he complained that the number of black fans at Hawks games was contributing to slow season ticket sales.
Then, leaked audio of a Hawks conference call exposed general manager Danny Ferry’s racist scouting report of 10-year NBA veteran Luol Deng. Ferry told those on the conference call that Deng “has a little African in him. Not in a bad way, but he’s like a guy who would have a nice store out front but sell you counterfeit stuff out the back.”
Ferry is now on a leave of absence from the Hawks, and should absolutely not be permitted to regain his position within the organization. Commissioner Adam Silver, who banned former Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life last year, will hopefully ensure this.
Silver’s term as commissioner has been refreshingly open to new ideas about the game. The former lawyer has held firm standards of conduct for those with a stake in the league’s success.
The NBA understands well that the best way to deal with issues—like those brought to light in the words of Sterling and Levenson—is to move quickly and forcefully with tact and frankness, because a large chunk of its fanbase is at stake.
According to the website sportsbusinessdaily.com, over 30 percent of NBA fans are Black or Latino and around 80 percent of the league’s players are Black. Silver, in both these scandals, realized the importance of quick action so as to not alienate a large portion of the NBA’s fanbase.
The NFL has done the complete opposite. Estimates are that almost 40 percent of NFL fans are female. Facing a moment to make strong statements on domestic violence against women, the league has thus far choked under pressure, and is now suffering the consequences of nationwide scrutiny. The NBA’s predilection to take an initial public relations hit in order to quickly wipe out a damaging institutional problem, on the other hand, makes the NFL look cowardly.
In an age when more fans than ever are questioning their allegiances to the sport of football, the NFL is certainly not helping its own cause. As sponsors threaten to cut ties with the NFL, the league will now begrudgingly move toward some kind of meaningful action. But it should not take the NFL until that point to recognize the importance of its public image beyond what is on the field of play.