After reading the opinion columns on this page for the past few months, I knew it was bound to happen: one of the columnists was going to write an anti-NBA piece. Furthermore, I knew it was going to be written by a baseball fan, having heard similar arguments last year from my Red Sox-obsessed roommate about the purity of baseball in comparison to the moral degeneracy of NBA players (“they’re always getting in trouble”) and the individualistic nature of the game. Ben Feit, in his article last Thursday, took a slightly more novel approach, criticizing the 82-game season of the NBA while rationalizing his way through the fact that there are almost twice as many games in a full baseball season. At the end, Major League Baseball and its players escape Ben’s column with nary a scratch.
It is understandable, however, that the NBA doesn’t capture Ben’s attention much; the Boston Celtics, his home team, haven’t done anything in more than a decade and a half. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t millions of NBA fans who follow their teams as much as Ben follows the Red Sox. And while Ben rightly points out several of the NBA’s flaws, he glosses over many of baseball’s shortcomings. I will try and turn the tables a bit in this article, not because I think the NBA is inherently better than professional baseball, but because baseball’s superiority is not as clear-cut as Ben makes it seem.
First and foremost, how can baseball fans root for a sport riddled with players on steroids? Track and cycling officials regularly hand out one- or two-year suspensions for using performance-enhancing drugs. In the NFL, a player is suspended for four games on the first positive test, six games following a second positive, and a whole season following a third positive. In baseball, on the other hand, there is no offseason testing, meaning players can just take steroids during the offseason and stop when the season (and consequently testing) starts. Furthermore, there is no penalty for the first violation, while it takes an absurd five violations before a player is suspended for a year. The “drug policy” simply has no teeth, and not only is the integrity of the game called into question, but the health of the players is also jeopardized.
Second, salaries are atrociously high in baseball, and the lack of a hard salary cap clearly separates baseball teams into the haves and the have-nots. Red Sox fans have plenty of reasons to celebrate their victory over the spendthrift Yankees, but they fail to acknowledge the fact that their triumph was merely a case of a team with the second-highest payroll beating the team with the highest payroll. Meanwhile, the NBA champion Pistons last year had the 17th highest payroll, while the two teams with the highest payrolls, the Knicks and TrailBlazers, didn’t even make it past the first round. The Lakers during their championship runs only had the 5th or 6th highest payroll, while the Spurs during their runs had a payroll in the bottom half of the league. Because of a true salary cap, there is so much more competitive balance in the NBA, where money cannot buy championships.
Finally, in regard to Ben’s arguments, he describes many of the 82 regular season games on the NBA as “insignificant” and the NBA season itself as “interminable.” Interminable? Try 162 regular season MLB games. Any argument about insignificant regular season games applies doubly to the MLB. Literally. In addition, although MLB playoff spots might be sparser, as mentioned earlier, any team with a payroll under a certain threshold is out of the playoffs on opening day. Multiply that by 162 games and then let me know which sport has more insignificant games.
In addition, it’s difficult to understand how Ben can complain about the NBA having too many playoff spots when, if not for the implementation of the extra wild card spot in 1995, the Red Sox would have made the playoffs only once in the past decade. More importantly, without the wild card, the Sox wouldn’t have even had a chance to finally win a championship last season. Sometimes expanding the number of playoff spots leads to stories like the Red Sox’s improbable run last year or the Knicks run to the NBA Finals as an eight-seed in 1999.
Regarding Ben’s belief that the many games in an NBA season allowed enough “wiggle room” for teams like the Lakers to “coast,” he needs to check where the Lakers and other champions finished in their conferences during the regular season. In reality, the number of teams that won the NBA title in the last 20 years with a seed lower than four can be counted on one finger. Any sort of coasting can cost you, because the team with the better regular season record gets home-court advantage in every playoff series, including the NBA Finals. This is unlike baseball, which determines World Series home-field advantage with a meaningless exhibition game (the All-Star Game).
Ben also trumpets the fact that a typical MLB contest is more alluring because teams play three- or four-game mini-series. In the NBA, most conference opponents play each other four times during a season, and the matchup dynamic can dramatically change as the season progresses. Personally, I find this more compelling than a baseball series between Pittsburgh and Milwaukee that takes the same exact snapshot four times in a row.
But then again, this is all about personal tastes. I like a league that is more athletic, where the ball is in play more than two minutes in a game, where owner isn’t the most important position on the team, and where the league isn’t reliant on performance-enhancing drugs to drive excitement. The bottom line, though, is that a fan’s excitement and interest level is in direct proportion to his or her team’s success. Transpose 2004 with 1985, and basketball would be the excitement king in Boston. Perhaps in the next century the Boston Celtics will allow Ben to write a retraction.
Dan Ly is a junior in Morse College.