New York Knicks forward Marcus Morris is arguably having his finest season in the NBA. The 30-year-old former Kansas star, whom the Knicks signed as a free agent in July, is averaging 19.3 points per game, a career high. He has been one of the few reliable starters for the 13-36 Knicks as they tumble through yet another terrible season.
The trajectory of Morris’s Knicks career changed Wednesday night and not for the better. Morris was involved in an on-court scuffle with Memphis Grizzlies players in Madison Square Garden. Much more significantly, he uttered a series of misogynistic and ignorant comments to journalists after the game.
Running up the score and sparking a fight
The genesis of the on-court scuffle occurred with about 50 seconds to go in the fourth quarter. The Grizzlies were up by 18 points at the time. Grizzlies forward Jae Crowder stole an in-bound pass by Knicks forward Julius Randle. With Knicks players essentially playing no defense, Crowder then dribbled the ball to the corner to launch a three. Knicks guard Elfrid Payton clearly thought Crowder’s attempt was bad sportsmanship given that the Grizzlies were about to win in a rout. Right after Crowder released the ball, Payton, with both hands, shoved Crowder in the chest, which caused him to tumble to the floor.
Crowder then jumped up to confront Payton. Meanwhile, players from both benches rose and players on the court congregated around Crowder and Payton. Morris, for his part, pushed Grizzlies rookie guard Ja Morant several feet; several other players leveled shoves as well.
To their credit, the referees quickly separated the players, a move that seemed to diffuse the situation. The referees also issued a number of infractions—Payton was issued a flagrant type 2 and ejected, both Morris and Crowder were ejected and Knicks guard Damyean Dotson was issued a technical foul. The Grizzlies would go on to win 127-106.
Morris tries to ridicule Crowder by insulting women’s basketball
After the game, reporters asked Morris about the incident and specifically Crowder’s decision to take a three with his team up by nearly 20 points. Morris and Crowder have a bit of a history—Morris essentially took Crowder’s spot in the Boston Celtics’ rotation at the start of the 2017-18 season after the Celtics dealt Crowder to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Kyrie Irving-Isaiah Thomas trade.
Morris clearly took offense, calling Crowder’s decision to “walk back” and take a three-point attempt “very unprofessional.” Morris also disparaged Crowder as needlessly “rubbing in” in his team’s imminent victory.
Had Morris only made comments along those lines, he would have been okay. It is fair to question why Crowder would try to pad his team’s blowout.
But Morris didn’t stop there. He went on to offer a series of sexist comments that boorishly disparaged women basketball players:
"He play[s] the game in a different way. A lot of female tendencies on the court. Flopping and throwing his head back the entire game. It's a man's game and you just get tired of it . . . It's soft. His game is soft. He's soft. It's how he carries himself. It's just very woman-like."
Morris apologizes but the NBA or Knicks could still punish him
It was a safe bet that Morris, and/or Knicks public relations staff, would attempt to walk back his comments. Morris did so on Twitter, apologizing that the remark reflected bad judgment in the heat of the moment and that he never intended to disrespect women:
NBA commissioner Adam Silver may or may not be mollified by any damage control efforts, especially with respect to a 30-year-old veteran player who’s obviously been around long enough to know better. Silver might also take issue with Morris claiming his remarks were made in the “heat of the moment” when the game was over and he was answering questions in the locker room.
As an important contextual point, the NBA is probably the most gender inclusive of the major professional U.S. sports leagues. This is evident on a number of levels. For instance, the NBA has invested both financially and reputationally in women’s basketball through its partner league, the WNBA. As detailed this month by Sports Illustrated, the WNBA is massively raising player salaries in the next collective bargaining agreement. With rising TV ratings and a greater number of games broadcast nationally, the WNBA is determined to ensure that it is the premier league for women’s basketball.
The NBA has also focused on expanding opportunities for women to obtain jobs in the NBA. Several women, including Lauren Holtkamp and Ashley Moyer-Gleich, are NBA referees, several others, including Niele Ivey (Grizzlies), Becky Hammon (San Antonio Spurs), Kara Lawson (Celtics), Jenny Boucek (Dallas Mavericks) and Lindsay Gottlieb (Cavaliers), are assistant coaches and Kelly Krauskopf is an assistant general manager with the Indiana Pacers.
The league also collaborates with LeanIn.org on various initiatives and has instituted a hotline for employees to confidentially report concerns about their treatment on gender and other demographic dimensions—the hotline was created a response to a workplace misconduct scandal involving former Mavericks team president and CEO Terdema Ussery and his interactions with women. The NBA has also collectively bargained a forward-looking domestic violence policy that explicitly prohibits psychological abuse and other forms of misbehavior “that intimidates, manipulates, humiliates, isolates, frightens, terrorizes, coerces [and] threatens.”
Silver is also aware that the Knicks franchise has been previously accused of crude comments about women. About 15 years ago, former Knicks employee Anucha Browne Sanders sued former Knicks coach Isiah Thomas and team owner James Dolan for hostile work environment. She maintained that Thomas referred to her as a “bitch” and a “ho” (Thomas firmly denied the accusations). A jury sided with Sanders and awarded her $11.6 million in damages; the parties reached an out-of-court settlement before there was an appeal. At the same time, Morris apologizing helps to reduce the impact of his remarks.
Silver has considerable discretion to punish a player for conduct that, in Silver’s determination, harms the league’s brand and image. This power is found in Article 35 of the constitution, which authorizes the commissioner to suspend and fine players for any “conduct that does not conform to standards of morality or fair play, that does not comply at all times with all federal, state, and local laws, or that is prejudicial or detrimental to the NBA.” Silver’s authority to punish is not without check: pursuant to Article XXXI of the CBA, an NBA player who is suspended for more than 12 games can appeal the suspension to a neutral arbitrator.
Silver could reason that Morris’s remarks are offensive to fans, sponsors and broadcast partners and also undermine league efforts to expand opportunities for women. Further, the remarks are particularly ill-timed in light of the tragic death of Kobe Bryant, who was a leading advocate for women’s basketball.
While Silver has wide freedom to suspend players, he only tends to invoke that power when players test positive for prohibited substances or when they misbehave in ways that include breaking the law, making impermissible contact or threatening violence. Last October, Silver suspended Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid and Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns for two games each for their roles in an on-court altercation. Two months later, the league suspended Washington Wizards guard Isaiah Thomas for two games after he entered the stands to confront fans. In past seasons, players have also been suspended for various legal matters and for leaving the bench during altercations.
Morris didn’t leave the bench as he was already playing in the game. He also neither tested positive for a prohibited substance nor does he face a legal matter. He did shove Morant, which could trigger a suspension, though he wasn’t assigned a flagrant 2 (which is reserved for particularly egregious unsportsmanlike conduct) for the shove. Plus, the referees swiftly diffused the situation before it became what could be termed a “fight.”
Morris may be more in line for a fine. In 2015, the league fined Chris Paul, who played for the Los Angeles Clippers at the time, $25,000 in the wake of Paul saying that officiating “might not be for her.” The comment was in reference to Holtkamp after a controversial call. Alternatively, the Knicks could fine or suspend Morris for conduct detrimental. Morris’s apology helps his case but it doesn’t insulate him from the possibility of a punishment.
Michael McCann is SI’s legal analyst. He is also an attorney and the founding director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire School of Law.