Tuesday October 27th, 2015

Let’s talk, for a moment, about GIFs.

(Don’t worry, we’re not going to argue about how the word is pronounced. That would probably take 3,000 words or so, and go absolutely nowhere, so if you’re so inclined, you can go here instead.)

No, what this is really about is ethics in sports GIF journalism, because you may have noticed some weeks back when a pair of prominent accounts—Deadspin's and SBNation's—​were briefly suspended from Twitter as a result of sharing those short, delightful, animated bitmaps that we all know and love. Both accounts have since returned to the service, and continue to share sports’ most impressive, amusing or downright ludicrous moments in convenient, bite-sized bursts.

“We think that GIF-ing plays is pure, constitutionally-protected speech,” Deadspin editor-in-chief Tim Marchman told the Washington Post’s Steven Perlberg, “We’ll do what we’ve been doing, using materials in ways that are consistent with the law and common sense.”

As noted at Awful Announcing, and plenty of additional outlets, there almost certainly is more legal wrangling on the way, as a number of entities fight to control and monetize their video in every way shape and form at a time when sports are unquestionably transitioning from television to digital environments. Though I lack legal certification, I do consider myself well-credentialed when it comes to “common sense,” so as the whole GIF-tastic drama played out, I couldn’t help but think NBA commissioner Adam Silver's words at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.

"The way we’ve looked at it, we’ve been incredibly protective of our live game rights. But for the most part highlights are also marketing," Silver said.

In other words, the NBA thinks if the people want GIFs … let there be GIFs.

And there was a great rejoicing.

A wise sports man once wrote “Never tweet,” but if you absolutely must be a part of the place where brands think they’re people, media members listen to their voices echo and the most important button is the one marked “mute” … well, then you could do a lot worse than #NBATwitter, the place where social networking is as utterly frivolous and delightfully weird as it ought to be.

This is the place where we’re always #WaitingForWoj, where the story of free agency is told with emojis, and where the first person to create a Crying Jordan meme is The Real MVP.

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It’s a world that makes time to celebrate frenetic slams and poetic crossovers, and will always let you know to turn on League Pass before the Splash Brothers go supernova. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the NBA’s digital universe is one of the best parts of basketball fandom these days, and one can’t help but think the league’s hands-off attitude–its willingness to let the community grow organically–is a big reason why.

An oversimplification? Undoubtedly. The NFL, Major League Baseball, the NHL, NASCAR, and soccer, both at home and abroad, all have vibrant online communities that feature the best their sports have to offer. But at a time when, as Sporting News’ Jesse Spector notes, MLB still occasionally struggles to get its arms around this brave new digital world, and, as chronicled by Nick Statt at “The Verge”, Roger Goodell’s league hands out takedown notices like they're uniform fines, there’s something refreshing about the NBA’s realization that, when it comes to sharing highlights, the customer is always right. And what’s more, they’re also a volunteer sales team!

Figuring out which game represents our true national pastime has become one of sports’ most enduring arguments. But maybe there’s something else to strive for. Because while football may have the rating clout, and baseball will always have a deep history that can’t be matched, the NBA has, if nothing else, re-carved out a place as the “cool” league in our country’s consciousness. With the new season underway, there is an unmistakable sense that basketball feels young, fresh and hip, and that its arrival brings excitement and anticipation, rather than ethical dilemmas and questions about the future.

A progressive approach to the web is only part of the equation, of course. There’s the fact that, blessedly, hoops doesn’t appear to exact the same long-term physical and mental tolls on its players as the unforgiving gridiron. There’s the sense that the sport has found the right balance between devotion to a local team and presence on a national level.

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There’s the undeniable reality that without a cap, helmet or facemask in the way, with courtside cameras providing us increased intimacy, basketball is able to build its stars like no other sport. It makes us truly feel like we know these players, their stories, their struggles, their humanity. There is something familiar, something relatable, about LeBron, KD, Steph, and the rest of their peers, even as they accomplish feats of otherworldly athleticism at which we mere mortals can only marvel.

And perhaps that is the biggest reason why the NBA seems to have captured this moment: The game has blossomed into something so undeniably beautiful. The modern emphasis on “pace and space” has created a cohesive, fluid brand of basketball that rewards teams who play in harmony, but still leaves room for a cast of characters to dazzle us with individual brilliance. And so, we swoon at Russell Westbrook’s unrelenting assault on the rim, roll our eyes at James Harden’s slightly dirty old-man-game, and chuckle as a diminished, 37-year-old Kobe Bryant continues to force shots, because, well, that’s Kobe, man, and even if it isn’t prudent, at least we admire his commitment to the part.

We know these guys, and we know their stories, and so the NBA is able to exist as a beautiful long-form drama, unlike anything else in sports. Is this finally the season that King James brings the Larry O’Brien Trophy to his hometown fans, and how much more will it mean given all that he’s been through in getting there? Are Kevin Durant’s days as a big star in a small city finally coming to an end, or has the story of his departure been written prematurely? Can Derrick Rose finally shed his star-crossed fate? Is Anthony Davis the next iteration of superstardom? Can CP3, Blake, and DeAndre finally be as successful as they are polarizing?

We’re ready for the answers, but mostly, we’re ready for a game that knows it’s just a game, one that doesn’t feel staid, or stuffy, or bloated beyond all recognition. We’re ready for a sport that’s willing to grow, and change, and evolve. We’re ready for a league that hasn’t completely lost all sense of perspective, and a season that feels more like recreation, and less like an endless morality play. Mostly, we’re just ready for basketball, because it’s been far too long.

This weekend marked another digital landmark for professional sports in America, but don’t worry, this one had nothing to do with GIFs.

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No, on Sunday, the NFL distributed its first game via live stream, selling Yahoo the exclusive rights to broadcast the Bills and Jaguars from across the pond in merry old England. Naturally, that meant that Monday was a day for results, and metrics, and press releases about what an unbridled success the league’s latest experiment proved to be. 33.6 million streams! 15.2 million unique viewers! 8.5 petabytes to end users!

It’s fine, of course, for the NFL to celebrate breaking new ground in the never-ending battle for eyeballs, across all manner of screens. But amidst all the crowing, was a rather revealing, and particularly humorous glimpse at how the league sees itself.

[tweet: https://twitter.com/Ourand_SBJ/status/658468604938088448]

“This showed us that digital is ready for the NFL.”

Good news, everybody! That massive, global, information superhighway that Al Gore built? The one that put all the world’s knowledge at our fingertips, connected us like never before, and basically changed the very framework of modern society?

Well, it turns out it can handle good old American Football, too! Thank goodness!

Sure, maybe it’s a little unfair to poke fun at a single, ridiculous exclamation. But then, such absurdity seems to perfectly encapsulate what’s grown so weary about the modern NFL: the fact that it continues to view football as the fabric of society, as a sacred institution, as, frankly, the most important thing in the world.

Who knows? Maybe in the NBA offices, there’s a brainwashed flack who feels exactly the same way about basketball. But I can say, comfortably and confidently, that in my favorite digital world, the vast expanse of #NBATwitter, the land of Lance Stephenson memes, Riley Curry Vines, and Stan Van Gundy mixtapes, basketball is light, and silly and joyous, rather than a daily referendum on how important it ought to be.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to build some GIFs.

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