The Game Is Trying to Cheat Scoring Machine James Harden
Why are so many fans and writers pulling for a billionaire owner who made a fortune off of cheap labor over a player who’s changed the game? You guessed it: Race.
The way James Harden scores is unfair to everyone but him. He rocks opponents to sleep with a yo-yo dribble that turns seconds into hours. He ignores ready teammates to consume the clock with hypnotic grooves and score on armies of defenders. He trundles his body into blind spot lanes to confuse referees and create chaos.
He’s frustrated legions of defenders and now he’s frustrating Tilman Fertitta, the billionaire owner of the Houston Rockets who’s now isolated in a face-off against maybe the best pure scorer the NBA has ever seen—in the death waltz of a dissatisfied star, due to collect $40 million in salary this year, and his obscenely powerful boss, worth more than $4 billion. Or not so isolated, as much of the sports commentary about the standoff has focused on how unjust Harden supposedly is being to the team, its fans, and its owner, with many sportswriters up in arms about the star’s holdout to try and force a trade that would let him work his trade in another city, for another billionaire (possibly Joseph Tsai, owner of the Brooklyn Nets and co-founder of the Alibaba Group).
Whatever it is that makes sports writers and fans root for owners, it’s satisfying as hell to see one of his workers putting the screws into Fertitta, whose company, Landry’s Inc., specializes in food and hospitality. This spring, amid a global crisis and national pandemic, it laid off nearly 45,000 workers. The billionaire—whose 12-bedroom mega-yacht, complete with helicopter pad, set him back about the same amount as one year of James Harden’s services—said that he was doing those workers a favor by giving them more time to secure unemployment relief. That’s Fertitta’s way: to build a vast business that relies on the cheap service of thousands and congratulate himself when he fires them at the worst possible moment.
American professional sports is one of few industries where the most valuable workers do not get to freely decide who they work for. NBA players have recently broken the lever pushing for more rights in that respect, commanding more of the league’s television revenue, and lobbying for shorter contracts that include more options for exiting. Still, since the players are mostly Black, the owners mostly white, and fan sentiment toward young Black men who are millionaires is unkind, these labor disputes—and the tense impasses they reach—propagate the lie that Harden is the diva and Fertitta the hapless victim of a star’s whims.
Take Bill Simmons, The Ringer owner and founder who talks about “player empowerment” but has historically shaded athletes for doing exactly what he did to advance his career. That empowerment euphemism is a way for white columnists like Simmons to signal implicit support for players deciding exactly where they want to work while admonishing them in the same breath for strident negotiation tactics. When Disney’s ESPN signed Simmons to a $20 million contract to create Grantland, a sports site dedicated to essays about athletes and teams, they minted him the king of talking heads.
He parlayed his penchant for always wanting to add his two cents into a million-dollar empire of his own. Simmons also derided the NFL, one of his employer’s hefty sponsors, and struggled to make Grantland a profitable entity. When ESPN hesitated to renew Simmons’ contract, a showdown ensued. Eventually, Simmons strolled into a deal with HBO to create a sports talk show (quickly canceled), and a new iteration of the sports megasite, The Ringer. But his new platform is another bully pulpit where he spends hours—his recent podcast on the Harden situation comes in at a 122-minute runtime—questioning players’ decisions and rallying opposition to their supposed disloyalty.
“I think the way this Harden thing has been received the last few days is really startling to me because, first of all, they should’ve fined him the moment he wasn’t [at camp]. The fact that he has so much control over the situation when he signed a contract with them to play for them for two more years, and, if he got hurt tomorrow, they would have to pay him for the next two years. They wouldn’t be like ‘Cool, we’re not paying you’...The lack of, uh, obligation that guys feel when they sign these big deals with these teams and they just feel like ‘Well, now I got my contract. I can do whatever I want anyway’ it really worries me for the long-term future of the league.”
No one asks why Bill Simmons wasn’t loyal to ESPN in 2015. No one asks why Tilman Fertitta wasn’t loyal to the restaurant workers from Rainforest Cafe who sued him for wage theft. Yet, when an athlete decides, like any other worker, where they’d most like to deploy their coveted talents, angry watchers burn their jerseys and mark them with scorn. Simmons recently sold The Ringer podcast network to Spotify for $196 million with no detractors present to skewer him for ditching ESPN or HBO.
For American cities, sports arenas and their commerce are precious lifeblood. A bad team in a flailing economy, like the New Orleans Pelicans in the Bayou, still generates $224 million in a year and gives its supporters hope. No matter that it’s run so frugally, players sustain injuries from sharing medical resources with New Orleans’ football team, which saved that billionaire owner some much-needed pocket change in the maintenance of her family business. The owners of sports franchises typically take huge tax breaks on real estate to build and rebuild eye-sore stadiums and leave those same zip codes gutted when they relocate. The owners of sports franchises support white nationalist racist candidates because that aligns with their values more closely than employees exercising freedom to work anywhere they’re wanted. It’s always about ‘free market’ trends until that free agency undercuts massive profit.
James Harden finds and exploits advantages on the court to score at a clip that’s earned him millions. Tilman Fertitta finds and exploits advantages in people’s lives to make billions. We need to talk about who’s really being empowered here.