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  • The NBA's disciplinary process might be straightforward and speedy, but that doesn't mean it's satisfactory for the players. The Crossover examines how the system works.
By Ben Golliver
March 27, 2018

Matt Barnes called it a career last summer, with a long–awaited championship ring on his finger and with no illusions about his reputation. The 14–year NBA vet was a natural born football player who relished taking an unapologetic, impolite approach on the court and during his post–game interviews. By any standard, but especially for a second-round pick who specialized in dirty work, Barnes’s career was a smashing success: He banked nearly $30 million in salary from nine different franchises.

The self-described “villain” understands he’s better known for his rule-breaking than his shot-making. Barnes ran afoul of the NBA league office on at least 14 occasions during his career, receiving fines for throat-chopping, basketball-tossing, water bottle-kicking, and trash-talking, plus numerous suspensions, including one for pleading no contest to an off-court arrest. In addition to those big-dollar fines, he was regularly hit with the NBA’s version of a parking ticket: Over a five-year span, he accumulated 42 technical fouls, each which carried a four-figure penalty.

All told, Barnes estimates that he accrued roughly a half-million dollars in sanctions. That’s a whopping total, even for a financially savvy millionaire with aspirations of becoming a billionaire. And now that the chippy small forward is retired and therefore free from further damage to his bank account, he is happy to torch the NBA’s disciplinary structure.  

“I would fire everybody in charge because they’re just out of touch,” Barnes told The Crossover by telephone last week. “The fines are ridiculous. They play favorites. These new referees are so arrogant and ego-driven. They’re handing out [technical fouls] like they’re candy to kids. That’s thousands of dollars a pop. They pay us a lot of money, but they do their best to take it back.”

Barnes is hardly the only one grumbling. Warriors forward Draymond Green joked in 2015 that he would set aside a portion of his four-year, $85 million contract strictly to cover fines. That was before he suggested in January that the NBA should hire “a whole new crop” of referees, drawing a $25,000 fine. Last fall, Blazers guard CJ McCollum mounted a media campaign after he was fined a game check—more than $170,000—for leaving his team’s bench during a pre-season altercation. McCollum’s argument? That the NBA “didn’t have to suspend [him]” because the rule wasn’t always enforced.

Clearly, animosity is only half the story for the players. The other half is curiosity. What happens when there are inconsistencies around the league’s interpretations of its rules? Can a fine be formally disputed? Many players and some fans are aware that all fine money is donated to charity. But where exactly does all that money go? And is there anything a player can do to direct his fine towards a pet philanthropic project?

“[The league] took my money and I never knew where it went,” Barnes said. “And they’re taking the money at such a high rate that it should have gone towards something that I wanted. As players, we earned the money. A $50,000 fine is a s---load of money. Let me send that to my non-profit or one of my friend’s non-profits so that I know it’s really making a difference.”

NBA players like Barnes, Green and McCollum have plenty of fine-related questions. And the National Basketball Players Association has the answers, even if they’re not always fully satisfying.

Lachlan Cunningham

How does the NBA’s fine system work?

For better or worse, the NBA’s disciplinary system is straightforward and speedy. The league’s basketball operations department, headed by Executive VP Kiki VanDeWeghe, constantly monitors gameplay, media comments, and off-court behavior for rule infractions. For routine matters, like publicly criticizing an official or an on-court skirmish that warrants a suspension, the NBA’s security personnel contacts the involved player(s) to conduct a tape-recorded interview. These interviews almost always occur on the day after the incident, as the league is diligent about issuing punishment prior to the player’s next game in case a suspension is involved.

Prior to that call, a member of the NBPA’s legal staff will contact the player to help mount a defense. The union attorneys review tape of the incident or comments, help prepare statements for the player, and pinpoint relevant precedents to frame the conversation. In most cases, the size and scope of punishment is influenced by relevant precedents and three factors: the player’s intent, his willingness to show remorse, and his history of rule-breaking. The NBPA keeps a database of past incidents and even tracks which officials hand out technical fouls to which players to help bolster their arguments.

VanDeWeghe and the league office make their decision shortly after the official interview and then announce the punishment via press release the same day. According to NBPA lawyer Gary Kohlman, the NBA’s punishment decisions are made “within hours, if not minutes” of the call’s conclusion. Monetary fines, whether in the form of a set dollar amount or a game check, are then withheld from the player’s next paycheck by his team. This perfunctory process—with the NBA effectively serving as prosecutor, judge and bank teller—can leave players feeling aggrieved.

“[The league] knows what they’re going to do before they even talk to you,” Barnes said. “For guys who have reputations, the phone calls are pointless. It’s like your word versus the police. Your word versus the official’s word. The league feels like it’s their job to protect the referees more than the players.”

Kohlman said that the NBPA has been “pretty successful” in ensuring consistent rulings for common situations. First-time and/or apologetic offenders can expect a standard $15,000 fine for criticizing the officials. Major player/referee confrontations during a game generally run $25,000. As a repeat rule-breaker, Green was recently fined $50,000 for a tirade against referee Lauren Holtkamp. Other less predictable scenarios—like fights or especially egregious flagrant fouls—fall into a grey area that’s more open to interpretation by the league office.  

For fines larger than $50,000, the union can also file a grievance on behalf of the player and take the punishment to an independent arbitrator. Often, that process results in reduced fines and, in turn, refunded money to the player. However, Kohlman strongly believes the league would benefit from a more deliberate initial process, perhaps one that included a “stay” provision like Major League Baseball.

“Both parties are operating under the looming gun of the game coming that night or the next day,” Kohlman told The Crossover. “[It would be better] if we had another day or two to investigate [before the punishment is decided]. A little more time with the player, a little more time to look at tapes, or to see if there’s history with a referee. I think a more meaningful review with more due process would be fairer to the game of basketball, not just to the player.”

Such changes will have to wait until the next round of Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations. However, the NBPA did score a major money-saving win during 2016 CBA negotiations: The formula for a game check is now equal to 1/145th of a player’s annual salary, down from 1/110th during the previous CBA.

That reworked ratio might sound obscure, but it can equate to big dollars. For example, Hornets center Dwight Howard was recently suspended for one game without pay after accruing his 16th technical foul of the season. With his $23.5 million contract, that lost game check cost Howard roughly $162,000. The same penalty under the old formula would have cost him roughly $213,000. 

Mitchell Leff

Who receives NBA fine money?

The money is gone from the player’s paycheck. Now what?

The short answer is spelled out in the CBA: Player fines go to charity. The slightly longer answer: Half of the money goes to the NBA for distribution to its official charitable partners and the other half goes to the NBPA. Technically, the NBPA’s half is managed by the NBPA Foundation, a separate 501 (c)(3) non-profit run by executive director Sherrie Deans.

All those kicked chairs, officiating rants and forfeited game checks really add up. Over the last year alone, Deans said that the NBPA Foundation’s half of player fines totaled between $2.5 and $3 million. That figure, which arrives from the NBA in a single annual payment, does not include fines for referees, coaches, executives and owners. Non-player fines are not split with the union, per league rules.

In addition to new fines, the NBPA Foundation is endowed and therefore draws funding from investments made over the last 20 years. But the check for each year’s fines is consistent and large enough that Deans, who signed on to run the NBPA Foundation three years ago, doesn’t bother tracking individual sanctions.

“I completely disconnect my work from the fines being given,” said Deans, who met NBPA president Chris Paul while she worked at the Admiral Center, a philanthropic consulting company for celebrities and athletes. “I know that sounds ridiculous but it’s true. I don’t see a fine being delivered and say, ‘Cha-ching, we’re going to feed 100 more people.’ I’m focused on how I can help the individual players maximize their charitable work.”

The NBPA Foundation spreads the fine money around through a variety of long-term commitments and shorter-term grants, often with the goal of growing the game or honoring the sport’s history. More than 15 countries around the world have received contributions from the NBPA Foundation aimed at youth sports initiatives, and All-Star Weekend host cities have benefited from substantial contributions in recent years. In New Orleans, the NBPA made a three–year commitment to a midnight basketball program that sought to reduce crime while offering job training services. This year, the Foundation made a three–year, $150,000 pledge to refurbish basketball courts throughout Los Angeles.

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Deans and company have also stepped forward to coordinate wide–ranging efforts when multiple players express an interest in a single cause. When the water crisis in Flint, Mich., became national news, players throughout the league reached out with questions about how the NBPA could help. The Foundation launched a multi–faceted and ongoing response: members of the Detroit Pistons helped distribute clean water, Flint native JaVale McGee and other players taped video messages for a United Way self–esteem campaign, and the Foundation funded basketball camps and donated money to multiple organizations in the area promoting literacy and health.

The crown jewel of the Flint outreach is a program that provides families in need with free coupons for vegetables at a local farmer’s market. Over two years, the NBPA Foundation has funded more than $155,000 worth of redeemed vouchers, using posters of NBA players to help promote the program in area schools.

“Flint is a food desert,” Deans said. “There isn’t one large–scale grocery store in the city. We partnered with a University of Michigan clinic to promote healthy diets that can counteract the effects of lead poisoning. Kids in Flint are like kids everywhere: they don’t like vegetables. The non-profits wanted us to use images of the players on the program materials so that kids would feel like eating vegetables is cool and like the food is a gift from the players.”

The next time a player loses his cool during a post-game interview and blurts out, “F--- the refs,” just remember that’s code for, “Fresh lettuce in Flint.”

Harry How

Can NBA players direct their fine money to their favorite charities?

Many players, like Barnes, have asked the NBPA whether their fines can be instantly redirected to their preferred charities. That’s not an option, for both logistical and ethical reasons. For starters, some fines are deducted from a player’s paycheck months before they arrive to the NBPA Foundation for dispersal, others are rescinded or lessened after the fact, and all fines are thrown into a giant pot anyway. The bigger concern is a possible misuse of funds that could lead to legal trouble given that the NBPA’s giving is federally regulated.     

However, Deans has a pitch ready for NBA players whose paycheck comes in a little light after a dust-up: The NBPA Foundation matches charitable contributions to non-profits up to $25,000 per player, per year.

Let’s say an NBA player gets a $25,000 fine for blasting off on the officials and wants something positive to come from his indiscretion. The player can donate $25,000 to a non-profit of his choice. In turn, that non-profit can apply to the NBPA Foundation for a matching grant of $25,000. This indirect method gives the player a tax write–off and the knowledge that some of the NBA’s fine money went to a charity of his choice. More importantly, the charity gets the player’s $25,000 plus $25,000 of union funds to do their work. 

Of course, NBA players can give to charity and encourage non-profits to apply for NBPA Foundation matching grants even if they never get fined. All told, 115 players have pursued matching grants over the last three years.

“A pretty high percentage of players participate, but my goal is everybody,” said Deans, who makes annual presentations at the Rookie Symposium and meets regularly with teams throughout the season. “It’s a constant educational push.”  

Even as NBA players have become increasingly involved in political discourse and movements, their charitable work with the union usually has a personal bent. Isaiah Thomas approached the union about purchasing an air conditioning unit for a Boys & Girls Club in the Seattle area. He wanted children to be able to play safely inside during hot summers. Gorgui Dieng collected medical supplies and worked to address hunger in his home country of Senegal. Wizards forward Kelly Oubre funded scholarships for students at an arts high school in Washington D.C. Kristaps Porzingis used matching funds to build a basketball court and host camps in his Latvian hometown.

 “Our players are getting very local in their giving,” Deans said. “There’s a sense that maybe they can’t change what’s happening on the national landscape [politically], but they can reach people in the neighborhood where they grew up or in the city where they live now.”

Thearon W. Henderson

Why not be the good guy?

The NBPA’s approach to player discipline is a study in pragmatism: They know they will never be able to eliminate player misconduct and fines, so they concentrate their efforts on reducing the financial impact on players and maximizing the goodwill generated by the lost wages. Along the way, the union also hopes to connect with players like Barnes, who may feel ostracized by the NBA’s punishment system.

“The NBA never wanted to use me to market their work even though I have a huge following and lots of fans,” he said. “I was the bad guy to them. I always wanted to do NBA Cares but they didn’t want me to represent the league. I just did Matt Cares instead. I went to Africa by myself to do camps and clinics.”

As Barnes went through a public divorce and tense custody battle—one that led to a well-publicized fight with former Knicks coach Derek Fisher in 2015—NBPA staffers helped him channel his frustrations into advocacy. During All-Star Weekend, Barnes spoke to a group of players about the importance of being an active father, and he recently recorded a video for the union about his experiences with his children and with his own father.

“I’m trying to reach out and touch guys in the league with kids,” he said. “My dad was there but he was on drugs and abusive. Some guys didn’t have fathers. Some guys grew up with great dads but the weight of fatherhood shifts onto their shoulders because they make millions now. Some guys are away from their kids or divorced. I’m letting them all know they aren’t alone when it comes to fatherhood issues and to encourage them to make time for their kids.”

When asked what he would do if he could have his $500,000 in fine and suspension money back to dole out to charity, Barnes rattled off a list of possibilities: college scholarships for children who beat cancer, mentoring programs, after-school care, clothes for inner-city kids. While he said he doesn’t regret any of his behavior, Barnes is proof that rule-breakers can be conscientious too.

From the union’s standpoint, finding a way to engage or reengage with every player is far better than the alternative. Why sit back and passively allow rule–breakers to be viewed as outlaws when so many of those same players are now personally invested in large–scale community outreach? Why let the next Barnes go through his career feeling misunderstood and angry over his lost wages?

“We don’t just send checks wherever a player wants if they get fined,” Deans said. “They have to give and be involved. But we get behind whatever causes they feel are important. Collectively, the players have more than just financial capital. Their presence helps validate the work that non-profits are doing, especially when kids are involved.”

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