”I’m surprised at the number of elite athletes from around the world who are in the NBA as of 2006.” National Basketball Association (NBA) Commissioner David Stern made this comment when asked about the future of the NBA. For the 2006-2007 NBA season, approximately 100 of the NBA’s 450 players will be from countries outside of the United States. But David Stern’s surprise is rather disingenuous, as he readily admits the NBA’s commitments to investing in Europe, South America, Africa and China, to name a few, over the past decade.
“The China market is our most important and largest market outside the United States. China is clearly priority No. 1,” Stern said, as he was interviewed from Guangzhou, China in early August 2006, where the U.S. National Basketball Team was playing in exhibition games prior to the World Championships in Japan. He went on to say that the NBA’s business holdings in China are growing by 30% each year.
Stern hopes to double the NBA’s staff from 50 to 100 at its three China offices in time for the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Stern has structured a marketing engine in China, ready to sell more NBA merchandise and apparel, expanding its online presence, offering live streaming of NBA games online and hopes to double its broadcasts of NBA games to 50 in the next few years. Stern has set his sights on the NBA playing regular season games in China as well.
Although NBA.com/China was launched by the NBA in November 2002 and has had limited TV broadcasts since 1991, it currently has programming on 24 television outlets including on national TV station China Central Television, which broadcasts NBA games for free. NBA merchandise is sold in over 20,000 retail outlets throughout China and in 2005-2006 the NBA signed on with five new Chinese marketing partners. Recruitment of new talent cannot be overlooked either, with the NBA’s appetite to diversify its player personnel. But one can only wonder how much benefit NBA players will realize from such investments.
But this is only part of the story, as there are many problems which still remain such as the rampant counterfeiting of NBA merchandise in China, which exists in every sector of marketed goods there, costing U.S. firms billions of dollars in lost revenues each year. In addition, censorship of broadcasts and limited internet access by the Chinese people is controlled by the Communist Chinese Party. China’s persistent human rights and labor abuses are never discussed in a perfect NBA world either and why should they be? After all, the U.S. government pays but lip service to a trade partner and major creditor in China, which the U.S. economy is virtually dependent upon.
Prior to Stern’s recent visit to China, back in the U.S. in June 2006, United States Olympic Committee (USOC) Chairman, Peter Ueberroth, signed a bilateral agreement with the China Olympic Committee. Titled the Memorandum of Intentions for Sport Exchanges Between the Chinese Olympic Committee and the United States Olympic Committee, it is designed to promote friendship and understanding between the two nations. According to Ueberroth, “We clearly need to reach out to every nation, no exception, and envelop friendship through sport,” supposedly to give other countries a different perception of Americans.
But the agreement in friendship goes far beyond a mere symbolic gesture, just two years before the 2008 Beijing Olympics. It will provide the Chinese with the U.S. sharing of its expertise in coaching, its sports facilities, inroads in science and medicine, management and marketing, among other things. It is arguable about how much the U.S will gain from China’s implied reciprocity.
What is clear, is that China looks at sports far differently than the U.S. does. Sports are not just games or a business or sheer entertainment for the Chinese. Elite athletes in China are trained to project national ambition. China’s main intent is not to develop NBA stars but for their athletes to be representative of the nation and that international competition is far more important than lending a few players to the NBA. But yet the Chinese are also smart in business and will suffer allowing a little entertainment for its people, on its own terms of course, while at the same time benefiting from millions of dollars in American business ventures.
And while the Chinese have different cultural objectives than the western world, other countries are about the individual. The NBA, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, (NCAA) in addition to Major League Baseball (MLB) and the National Football League, (NFL) are about packaging those individuals in order to market the whole of their sports. And as all of the aforementioned are businesses, they look at the bottom line, even at the sake of opportunities for American athletes.
While the NBA has been successful in creating a myth that European players have better fundamental skills than American players, yet are inferior overall to the American NBA player, it all comes down to economics. Since the U.S. uses the NCAA primarily as its developmental league, and Europeans can sign professional contracts at age 16, the NBA signs European players and waits now until they are 19 years of age and drafts them directly into the NBA. But the NBA does not get the full scope of the player’s skills, as they remain secluded in another country during development. The NBA however takes a gamble and figures that buying out a less than lucrative contract for a potential superstar is a better bet than having patience with an American who may have had a marginal NCAA career and may demand an overpriced contract.
Meanwhile, NCAA Basketball is rabidly recruiting those foreign players who do not sign professional contracts abroad, or those who may have fraudulently made their way into the American collegiate system, which has been fully documented. It includes players from as far away as Australia, as in Andrew Bogut, the first overall NBA draft pick of 2005. Players are also brought in from Argentina, Brazil, Africa, all of Europe, Russia and the West Indies, among others. However, the signing of such foreign students means less opportunity for American students, and some of whom who just wish to finance an education while at the same time doing so by playing basketball.
Yet, the majority of Europeans playing college basketball are not NBA material. And instead of playing in their home countries for a minimal salary they instead get the good fortune of a free college education. According to Andrew Bogut, “Once you’re here, you’re kind of taken care of. A job isn’t necessary if you’re on a full scholarship.” “With a free education, three meals a day and a nice dormitory, rather than complain about college cafeteria food, they think its Morton’s Steakhouse,” says Fran Fraschilla, former St. John’s University and University of New Mexico basketball coach, speaking of the foreign student athletes.
Think its only basketball where Americans are losing ground? Aquatic athletes are coming to U.S. college campuses in droves. Since the modern Olympic Games, the U.S. has dominated in international aquatic competition. Australia has recently closed the gap. And the women’s German swim team no longer dominates as it once did with the use of anabolic steroids, which existed in the pre-testing era when there was an East German team. China’s use of steroids was also deterred upon testing positive in past Olympics with several of its women swimmers.
But now athletes are welcomed with opened arms to experience the best training in the world, only to go home and compete against the U.S. on the world’s stage. Countries such as Germany, Malaysia, Finland, Sweden, Hungary, Italy, Estonia, Trinidad and Tobago, Brazil, Great Britain, Australia, Canada, Hungary, Kazakstan and of course China, among many other countries, send their athletes to enroll in U.S. schools with the best swimming and diving programs. Such schools offer excellent academics as well including the University of California at Los Angeles, (UCLA) the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Southern California, the University of Minnesota, the University of Florida and the University of Arizona.
And we cannot forget about the recent flood of professional tennis players and professional golfers making homes in the U.S. while seeking out U.S. trainers and coaches in order to increase their winning potential on the world circuits. Primarily among them are Russian women tennis players and Korean women golfers.
And while individual professional athletes are received differently than professional teams or college athletes in the U.S., the sports industry including the USOC wishes to change its image from that of competitor to that of being inclusive and politically correct. Should that come at the expense of funding Americans preparing for the Olympics or deprives American students from college educations all in the name of globalism, so be it. Yet, it will eventually defeat the U.S. athlete and impact morale and America’s sense of competition.
And finally, the idea that white American players are not equipped to play in the NBA but white European players are, including those who are not professionals and go through the same NCAA experience, is but a fallacy and has been perpetuated for far too long. The few exceptions to this myth are the newly drafted Adam Morrison and J.J. Reddick, and past players John Stockton, Christian Laettner, and Chris Mullin along with the great Larry Bird. It is simply wrong. Were Europeans the best players, it might be more acceptable.
But the increase of insourcing foreign players in the U.S. will become the new norm and the best athletes now, who are predominantly African Americans, will be sacrificed. As aptly put by Kenny Smith, former NBA world champion and now TNT studio analyst for NBA games, “Something deeper and more complex than “poor fundamentals” is at play here and young NBA players had better check it out.”
The USOC, the NBA, the NCAA, MLB, including the NFL, simply cannot continue to dilute the American pool of athletes while at the same time expect Americans to dominate in their respective sports. Such hypocrisy is no better exhibited than by the NBA and the USOC, fearful that America no longer dominates basketball internationally as it once did, while the NBA in 2006 devotes 25% of its spots to foreign players.
It remains unfair and unrealistic for those Americans who aspire in the future to become college, Olympic or professional athletes and eventual champions. For without America’s resources and its full support they will simply lose.