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Just the way the ball bounces?
We need fair play
Crazy news from the NBA, no? The basketball finals next month will follow a new model, just announced by the commissioner's office. One team will play by different rules than the other. Hard to believe! Let's get right down to the details.
The finalist from the western conference will face some tough new constraints. Its roster will be examined after the semifinals, and then purged by NBA authorities. A random set of players will not be allowed to suit up for the finals. The remaining players will have to arrive courtside right at game time; they will not be allowed to warm up or use a locker room.
When the game begins, the starting five of the western conference champ will remain on the sidelines for a full minute, while their opponents shoot as many layups as they can. When the starters finally get out on the court, they will shoot at a basket with a circumference an inch less than regulation. No player from the western conference champ will be allowed to drink fluids during the game.
"It's still basketball, right?" was the slogan I heard from the office of the NBA commissioner.
League authorities are considering one more "reform." It looks like the eastern conference champ might get to select its own referees for the finals. Word is that assistant coaches would suit up in the zebra stripes. I don't know about you, but it seems to me that this would make a big difference!
Even if the western conference champ manages to score more points, a win is not certain. In another new twist, any fan is allowed to challenge the result of the game by emailing the commissioner's office. Then league authorities will review the game and decide for themselves who actually won. They will not be bound by the scoreboard.
How did all this begin? Last summer the commissioner started saying that eastern conference teams won by playing better, but that western conference teams won by cheating. When Lebron's Lakers won the NBA championship last fall, the commissioner took that as confirmation. The western conference always cheats!
Some league officials ignored these remarks; what does it matter if a powerful person tells a huge lie? But then it transpired that most members of the NBA rules committee were fans of eastern conference teams; they saw an opportunity. Beginning from the lie that western conference teams cheated, the rules committee devised new measures to protect what it calls "roundball integrity."
As for me, I can't imagine that this will hold up for long. The players won't stand for it. Regardless of which conference they play in, they won't go onto the court. Fans will be outraged, and not just those who root for western conference teams. People care about fair play, right? Perhaps most importantly, I expect the sponsors to run for the hills. No one wants their brand associated with cheating.
So of course none of the above is true about professional basketball. The real NBA delivers a beautiful, competitive game; and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver is a person of outspoken ethics. He is not someone I would at all suspect of playing favorites or telling big lies.
But palpable injustice of just this kind is clearly possible: if not in our sports, then in our elections. I invented all the rule changes, but each one was inspired by political reality.
It is not true that NBA players can be arbitrarily removed from rosters. But it is true that voters can be purged from registration lists. New laws under discussion would make this easier.
It is not true that players must arrive right before games in order to play. But states are making it harder to vote early.
We all know that it would be ridiculous for one team to sit on the bench while the other scored uncontested points. But some Americans have to wait in long lines to vote, and others do not. State legislators are making this problem worse.
A smaller basket for one team would be absurd. Yet states close down polling places, which amounts to the same thing.
And yes, there is now a law on the books that makes it a crime to offer water to fellow Americans waiting in line to vote. We wouldn't ban water in sports, would we?
We would find it ridiculous if the fan next to us could pull out his phone and ask for the final score to be overridden. And yet new proposals would allow a single person to appeal the outcome of an election.
Maybe the most outrageous idea in my basketball fantasy was that one team's coaches could serve as the referees. The equivalent is possible in the 2024 presidential elections. State legislatures are talking about giving themselves a direct role in certifying the vote count. That implies the power to choose presidential electors. In other words, citizens can cast their votes for president how they like, but state legislators can then cry fraud and assign electoral votes themselves. Since state legislators are partisan politicians, the coaches would become the referees.
This latest turn against voting rights did start with a big lie, one with no more basis in reality than the claim that cheating is endemic in the western conference. Last summer President Trump started saying that if he won it would be legitimate and that if he lost it would be cheating. After he lost the election last fall, the idea found broad resonance.
As I tried to explain, the problem with a big lie of this kind is that it makes its way into institutions. It is the justification for all of the voter suppression underway right now. And once the laws are passed, it is as though the big lie becomes true.
If we looked on silently while some basketball players were forced to play by different rules than others, we would also be accepting the reasoning behind those rules. If we accept electoral laws built on a lie, we endorse the lie.
But should we really accept in life what we would reject in sports? The sponsors -- the companies that fund candidates -- should pull out. Any firm that wants to avoid chaos in the next four years should cease supporting politicians who repeat the big lie and suppress votes.
"It's still democracy, right?" No, not really. At some point, as you warp the rules, it is no longer sport. And at some point, as you warp the vote, it is no longer democracy.
P.S. The fictional comparison I draw does have a problem. Voter suppression is not about west and east, not about regions. As we all know, as NBA players know, it is about race. That just makes matters worse. Racial prejudice is worse than random prejudice. Voting should be a human right, for everyone.