I watched the NBA Finals this year, and I regret it. Not because the games weren't interesting. But because of what the Finals revealed about the sport and about America.
In short, I think it's patently clear to even the least experienced observer that the NBA rigged the game against one of the best teams in basketball history, and they did it just to increase their own revenue.
A little background.
I'm not a huge sports fan, which makes me as frustrating to actual sports fans as casual voters are to diehard Democrats and Republicans. I tend to tune in when a genuine phenomenon in any given sport arises and demands my attention. The rest of the time, I don't participate.
This year Steph Curry is just such an attraction. The way that he and Klay Thomson and the rest of the Golden State Warriors have re-drawn the basketball court, making three-point shots an equal partner with action in the paint, is nothing short of electric. But it's not just their innovation I find exciting, it's Curry's attitude, the attitude of his team, and the attitude of his dignified, straight-talking coach, Steve Kerr.
The entire Warrior franchise appears to be exceptional, while behaving with genuine humility. They seem to be having fun. And they make massive innovation and nearly impossible athletic feats seem effortless.
That's what I learned by watching basketball this season, and to underscore the point about my being a hard-to-attract viewer - the first game I watched this year was the Warriors 73rd win. When they simultaneously broke the record for most games won in a regular season, and Steph Curry destroyed the record for most regular season three pointers.
I then watched every game between the Warriors and the Thunder, and all seven of the finals games. Along with millions of people in this country and abroad. And I was excited to do so. Until.
I watched the refs.
The calling of fouls in the NBA is always somewhat arbitrary. Unlike some other sports, 'going to the tape' and correcting a bad call is something that happens only during the rarest of situations in the NBA. The rest of the time, bad calls by referees are just part of the game. But we in the audience get to see how bad the call was. We see the instant replay. We hear the expert commentary.
At several times during the series, and in particular in the finals, the refs made bad calls against the Warriors. And not just random bad calls. Bad calls right when it mattered most. Right when it was clear that the energy was shifting, and the Warriors were about to do what the Warriors do - create magic on the court.
For someone invested in the sport, and certainly in the Warriors, it must have been agonizing. For someone only tangentially involved like myself, it could have only been frustrating. But as an American, I found it sickening.
To me and to many others, it was obvious that the refs, who are salaried by the NBA, had been told - or at least, encouraged with a wink and a nod - to make sure that the finals, which most likely should have been over during game 5, went to a game 7. The profit incentive is impossible to deny, the NBA makes millions with each additional game. Plus, the NBA attracts a larger audience. It's good for the league to have more finals games, it's good for the bank accounts of all involved.
But that's upsetting, and it's foolish, short-term thinking at best. Pulling Draymond Green from game 5 -- one of the Warriors key players - was highly suspect. Calling six fouls (several of them incorrect) against Steph Curry in game 6, to the point where he was ejected - appeared to this casual observer as not only unethical, but outright cruel. Calling fouls against him when it was he who clearly was fouled in game 7 was not just disturbing, it came off as sadistic.
I'm not sure how many other casual fans were as turned off as I was by watching all of this. But to me, it connects to a pattern in America, of systems being rigged to favor the wealthy and influential, at the expense of justice and fairness and simply human decency. It's in our politics, it's in our health care, and it's even in our entertainment.
And it needs to be called out, wherever found. The solution to this one is pretty simple. The NBA should allow for instant replay on all fouls. But unless we as a country are conscious of how the profit incentive is like water on pavement (it finds every nook and cranny) then the NBA may just find other methods to rig the system. At the end of the day, the solution is consumer education. We need to stand up and demand integrity wherever disingenuity is found.
In the short run, the NBA may have made more money. But in the absence of a once-in-a-generation fair game between the Cavaliers and the Warriors, the NBA may well lose money, viewers, and loyalty in the long run.
Well. We can only hope. Because things won't get any better unless they do. In politics, which affects us whether we are involved or not, we have no choice but to participate, even when the game is rigged. In sports - we can just tune out, and we should.