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Do Professional Sports Really Represent ‘Meaningful Competition?’

April 8, 2011

There is no clear cut answer to what meaningful competition means, but according to Mika LaVaque-Manty’s “Being a Woman and Other Disabilities,” meaningful competition is when all participants have ‘the hope of winning.’  There needs to be a level playing field where all athletes have similar situations and have the chance to win.  However, this is not the case in the NBA.  Professional basketball has a severe lack of parity, as there are only maybe five or six teams that have a legitimate shot to win the championship. Whether they admit it or not, the players know it, the owners know it, and the fans know it.

“Another interpretation of ‘meaningful competition’ might be to eliminate the effects of the luck of birth and other factors that don’t depend on a person’s individual efforts” (LaVaque-Manty 15). Everyone should start with an equal chance to succeed, but the big market franchises (i.e. the Lakers and Celtics) are the only ones that attract the superstar players.  Teams in smaller cities don’t have the same opportunities to succeed because the star players want to be in the spotlight of the big cities. We are seeing it now more than ever that the best athletes all join one team, usually in a big market, and leave the rest of the league behind.  Last summer, two of the best players in the league, Chris Bosh and Lebron James, left their teams to join Dwayne Wade in Miami.  This made Miami a contender, but left Toronto and Cleveland to be among the worst teams in the NBA.  In modern times, we are seeing the best players all flock to one big market team more and more often. At the midpoint of the season, it was believed that only five teams had the chance to win the championship: the Lakers, Celtics, Spurs, Heat, Bulls.  This belief is still held as we approach the beginning of the playoffs, with a few other teams, such as the Mavericks and the Magic, having an outside chance of winning their conferences.  Fans of “small market” teams know this and spoke about it recently to ESPN: “‘Fair chance?’ said Marcus Barrett, a Charlotte Bobcats fan. ‘Nah, I wouldn’t say a fair chance. Because all the superstars don’t want to come here.'” The disparity between teams that has risen from differences in franchise location has been a major factor behind the lack of meaningful competition in the NBA.  Another reason is the lack of a hard salary cap that allows the big market teams to sign all of the best players that want to go there.

The NFL on the other hand has a hard salary cap, and that is what makes its playoffs so much more interesting.  In the above article, the commissioner of the NBA, David Stern, agreed that the NFL is set up in a way that gives every team a chance to win.  Every game is more meaningful for a lot more teams, because on any given Sunday in the playoffs there could be an upset.  Now don’t get me wrong, there are always upsets in the NBA playoffs, but for the most part there are a few teams that really have a good chance to win, and the rest are just playing for respect.  Basketball is built around superstars, and although a star quarterback makes a big difference in football, it is more of a team game.  The NFL is a lot more fun to watch for fans of all teams, because there is an equal playing field that doesn’t exist in the NBA.  In the NFL, wild card teams that barely make the playoffs have often won the Super Bowl, but in the NBA a seven or eight seed has never won the championship.

We all know the college basketball tournament, or March Madness, is one of the most thrilling sporting events there is.  It defines parity.  There has never been a person to create a perfect bracket, because it is so unpredictable.  In this past year, none of the top eight seeds (out of 68) made it to even the semifinals. Talent is far more evenly distributed than in professional basketball, and that is why March Madness is one of the most looked forward to sporting events in the United States.  The last team to make it into the tournament, Virginia Commonwealth, won five games and made it all the way to the Final Four. Almost no one gave them a chance to win that many games, based on the brackets, and most people were outraged that they were even in the tournament to begin with.  They didn’t win the championship, but another unlikely team in Connecticut did.  Parity creates meaningful competition, which leads to more interesting games for everyone.

This past NBA season has been called the most exciting season in recent memory for the same reason that is is not meaningful for all.  People love to watch superstars and big plays, so this season has been exciting for the fans because the five or six elite teams have been thrilling to watch.  However, it is not actually meaningful competition because it has been clearly shown that not every team has a legitimate chance to win it all.  If the NBA changes the rules of its salary cap to be more like the NFL, the talent will be more evenly distributed and the league will be better for all.  Once all the teams are put on equal footing, the games will be more meaningful, and the playoffs will be more exciting.

  1. marklgreer permalink
    April 9, 2011 1:38 AM

    I have been saying this for years. The NBA is not as exciting as it used to be because of the lack of parity. I have found myself rooting for the underdogs in each game because it would take real talent to beat the superstar athletes that are on these teams. What is required of those players who are not on those big name teams is that they work harder to get to the playoffs. This often happens with those who are perceived to be the underdogs (the disabled, women, minorities, children, elderly…). They work harder in order to compensate for the unlevel playing field. Whether it is due to soft salary caps or historical disadvantages.

  2. Josh Langer permalink
    April 9, 2011 4:35 PM

    I loved reading this article because I am a very big sports fan, but there are several things I disagree with you on. You argue that the NBA is not fair, but March Madness is. Just how you mention that superstars are more attracted to big cities, high school recruits are attracted to big time colleges. I would say the difference between the difference of the quality of players is much greater in the NCAA compared to the NBA, yet the NCAAB is still very competitive. Also, your statement about big markets team isn’t true. While the Celtics and Lakers have been consistently the best over the past few years, the Knicks and Bulls have struggled until this year. Additionally, I would not consider San Antonio, Orlando, or Oklahoma City big market teams, and all three of those have a chance to win it all. If you were going to complain about unfairness due to star power, this article probably should have been about baseball where the Yankees, Red Sox, and Phillies continually buy up all of the free agents in the offseason.

  3. Stephan Sakhai permalink
    April 9, 2011 7:48 PM

    Great comparison. It really is a problem in the NBA when superstars all go to the same team: i.e. Miami, Boston, or New York. However, one of the main reasons that the NCAA and NFL remain so much more competitive is just the general format of their playoffs. As you mentioned early in your post, to have meaningful competition all you need is “the hope of winning”. True, 8th seeds in the NBA hope they can win, and sometimes can give the one seed a run for their money (i.e. OKCity last year against the top seeded Lakers winning two games or the 1999 knicks making it to the NBA finals), but rarely do much more. In NCAA ball or the NFL, its one game. One win and you move on. I feel like this is ultimately the deciding factor for teams that make that 40 minute push in NCAA and 60 in NFL, to win just one game and leave it all on the court. In the NBA, on the other hand, players must be ready to leave it all on potentially 7 courts spanning 336 minutes. Its much tuffer to do that both physically and mentally, and is therefore a huge factor in meaningful competition.

    Though i dont disagree that the NBA salary cap is a key issue in just a handful of teams being considered title contenders, I would also emphasize the differences in playoff structure, and look for ways of making the playoffs more competitive.

  4. Pierre Gerondeau permalink
    April 9, 2011 10:09 PM

    This was a very interesting post, and I agree that the NBA doesn’t represent the most meaningful competition in professional sports. Small market teams don’t have a great chance at getting superstar players, and the way the playoffs are structured it is hard for anyone lower than a 4 seed to win the championship. Big market teams don’t necessarily have to be good to get superstar caliber players–players come because of the name alone. Small market teams don’t have as good a chance of signing premium players. In some ways they have to make smarter decisions from an ownership standpoint, to draft quality players, develop them, and keep them in the small market. The Oklahoma City Thunder are a great example of a good small market team. A few years ago they drafted Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, who are now superstar players. Recently, Durant signed a 5-year deal to stay in OKC, and Westbrook will probably sign an extension soon as well. The Thunder have drawn comparisons to the Cleveland Cavaliers when they had LeBron James. LeBron signed an extension to stay in small market Cleveland at the same age as Durant, but this past summer signed with the Superfriends team in Miami. Cleveland tried to win a championship with LeBron, and put good players around him, but ultimately they might not have had enough money to help him win a championship. If the Thunder can convince Durant and Westbrook to sign extensions again in 5 or 6 years, they will continue to be title contenders, and may be helping other small market teams in the process. So far, superstars don’t play in small market teams unless it was the team that drafted them and it is early in their careers. If OKC can keep Durant and Westbrook, it may prove that small market teams can still win championships, help the NBA have more meaningful competition, and have a greater variety of championship contenders each season.

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