Some Thoughts on Gilbert Arenas and Michael Vick

Gilbert Arenas is a pretty funny guy, huh? I mean, I haven’t seen humor that black since George Bluth died.

Now, I’m generally not pro Bringing Lethal Weapons To Work. And I generally think it’s okay for employers to fire employees for moral reasons, particularly when the “employer” is as squarely in the public eye as the NBA is. But I think it’s naïve to say that the NBA is in the same position as any other employer.

There was a lot of debate about a similar topic last year, when Roger Goodell decided to reinstate Michael Vick in the NFL. Some people were adamantly on Vick’s side, saying that he had paid his debt to society by spending two years in prison. Therefore, the NFL should honor that “clean slate” by reinstating him.

Other people, though, thought that simply being in prison did not fully warrant a return to football. After all, Vick’s “crime” wasn’t only breaking the law, but tarnishing his image and the image of the NFL. The NFL can choose not to hire an ex-con just as any private company or institution can refuse to employ someone based on his or her background.

Like the NBA, though, the NFL can’t just use this excuse. Both professional leagues have, for all intents and purposes,* a professional monopoly on their sport—if I want to be a pro football player, the NFL is really all that’s available to me.

*There are other basketball leagues, just as there used to be other football leagues, but the difference in scale and salary is such that it’s ridiculous to compare the two. 

So the NFL and NBA aren’t just enforcing their own moral standard—which theoretically any private person or institution ought to be able to do for themselves: They are enforcing the standard for professional athletes across their sport. And while pointing guns at teammates and shooting dogs are pretty uncontroversial sins, what if either league decided that other behaviors didn’t “represent the league well”? Suppose they banned players from recording albums (something so many of them love to do), or using Twitter, or any behavior that David Stern finds less acceptable than others (like, say, jokes about guns, which Arenas’ teammates seemed to enjoy). We obviously wouldn’t tolerate the leagues banning certain religious practices or political activities, but why are they allowed to dictate the kind of clothes basketball players wear?

I’m not saying that Arenas shouldn’t be suspended, or that Vick should have been reinstated immediately, but I do think the fact that the NBA and the NFL have such power in the sports arena means that certain ostensibly benign regulations (like the NBA age limit, for one) are ultimately unjust.

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