What’s the point in tampering rules?

After Draymond Green was fined $50,000 for his comments on TNT about how Devin Booker needed to go “somewhere where he can play great basketball all the time and win,” my roommate asked me a question I hadn’t given a ton of thought to before: “why is tampering even bad?”

My initial reaction was to push back. “Because it’s cheating,” seemed to be the simple answer.

“But is it really? Players talk to each other all the time, so why does it matter?”

He had a point. Players are notorious for talking to each other throughout the season and offseason, and even teams have gotten involved at times. Hell, one of the blockbuster trade deals of last summer reportedly started from a phone call between Paul George and Kawhi Leonard. So why should players and teams be punished for engaging in tactics that the public already knows they’re doing?

As Utkarsh Bhatla of The Sports Rush points out, the punishments for tampering may be small, and the rules intentionally vague, only to deter the public kind of tampering that Draymond engaged in. The largest punishment handed out for tampering was in 2017, when the Lakers were handed a $500,000 fine after Rob Pelinka was found to be talking with Paul George’s agent while he was under contract with the Thunder. Interestingly enough, it’s also the only fine I could find that was given out for a behind the scenes case of tampering.

Looks like smug Great Value Rob Lowe

Tampering rules aren’t even enforced unilaterally. LeBron James made comments about how he would love to play with AD in a post-game conference only months before the trade to send AD to the Lakers was executed, yet no punishment was given. So if the rules are vague, minimally enforced, and practically symbolic, what’s the point in having them? Does the NBA benefit at all from the current tampering rules?

I’d say that while it’s not perfect, to the NBA’s credit, they’ve done the best they can. The league seems to recognize that while they can’t stop players from talking to each other behind the scenes, they can at least try to stop them (and the organization’s whose FO’s want to keep them happy) from doing it so blatantly. And while some might say it’s just “parity theater”, I’d argue it actually does help in the long term to keep the playing field level between small and big market teams.

Take a look at the world of Soccer. For anyone who isn’t woke to the worlds most popular sport, here’s a little crash course on how roster construction and trades work: like Basketball, teams can only acquire players during a certain window, which is different for each league but usually goes from the end of the previous season to around the end of September, and then a one month window in mid-season. So we’ve got a signing period and a trade deadline (kinda), so far so similar. The main difference is that teams often have far less say in where players end up than players do.

In Soccer, players are bought and sold, not traded, and don’t need to be free agents to sign with different teams. This kind of flexibility is great for players, and while I’m never going to say something is “bad” that benefits players, at the same time this has led to a kind of power-consolidation in the hands of the wealthiest teams. Not just in purchasing power, but in the influence these teams project in the market.

A recent real life example of this hit close to home for me. I’m a fan of West Ham United, a middle sized team in the English Premier League. It’s one of the oldest teams in England, but kind of like the Knicks, hasn’t had much success in recent years. But things are starting to look up: one of our young players, Declan Rice, had a breakout season and has become one of the most exciting young prospects in the league.

So it’s no surprise that one of the largest teams in the world and a league rival, Chelsea, have expressed interest in signing Declan. But he’s under contract with West Ham for a few more seasons, so it’s no big worry, right?

Chelsea have made it public that they not only want Declan, but intend to sign him this transfer window. It’s also well known that Declan grew up a Chelsea fan. So he could go to West Ham’s board and say “I want to go to Chelsea, I’m not playing 1 more game for you if the move doesn’t go through”, or Chelsea could come through with a bid that a small market team like West Ham couldn’t turn down, and that’s the ball game. Either way, just the fact that Chelsea has made their interest known, combined with their much larger financial means and contending potential, means that its become exponentially harder for West Ham to keep their best player.

There’s no getting around tampering. It’s going to happen behind the scenes, and in an era where players have more power in shaping their career destiny than ever before, players are going to find their way to big markets and dynasty teams in the pursuit of championships. But if teams and players can come right out and court stars away from small markets publicly, it’ll only make it harder for small markets to keep hold of their homegrown stars in the face of market pressure. Like in Soccer, we could see smaller NBA teams become feeder systems for talent that will only hurt competition parity.

So while it’s not perfect or even terribly effective, the current tampering rules may be just inconvenient enough to keep things honest, at least on the surface.

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Jayson is a writer based in Los Angeles. His non-fiction work focuses mostly on the media history and it's impact on modern culture, and he dabbles in poetry.

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Jayson Kleinman

Jayson Kleinman

Jayson is a writer based in Los Angeles. His non-fiction work focuses mostly on the media history and it's impact on modern culture, and he dabbles in poetry.

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