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Flashback to when Nets owner Tsai said players were "partners" in the business; the Kyrie Irving saga shows that has its limits

Given the considerable controversy over star guard Kyrie Irving, suspended and forced to apologize for (but not completely renounce) his implicit endorsement of an anti-Semitic film before he returned, and the  criticism of not just Irving but the Brooklyn Nets' management--see, for example, these columns by Howard Beck and Steve Lichtenstein-- it's worth another look at team owner Joe Tsai's words in May 2020, during the early days of the coronavirus lockdown.

As summarized by NetsDaily, Tsai, speaking at a virtual seminar organized by Stanford, again said his decision to buy the team was influenced by his recognition that teams in the cartel-like league could share league-level wealth, like TV revenues.

Particularly interesting, in light of the Irving situation, was Tsai's recognition that team owners--now known as "governors"--share ownership with the players.

"So you can’t treat players as employees. They’re your partners in the business," he said. "So you really need to approach this relationship as a partnership."

That's relevant, especially, if you think superstars Irving and Kevin Durant helped influence the departure of former coach Kenny Atkinson, the hiring of retired superstar Steve Nash, and then Nash's recent exit. 

The limits of the partnership

But that partnership apparently has its limits, and reflects a hierarchy, given that Irving was suspended for at least five games, as the Nets said:
Such failure to disavow antisemitism when given a clear opportunity to do so is deeply disturbing, is against the values of our organization, and constitutes conduct detrimental to the team. Accordingly, we are of the view that he is currently unfit to be associated with the Brooklyn Nets.
As Lichtenstein, no defender of Irving, wrote, regarding "objective remedial measures" reportedly required (though not officially announced) of the player:
I can understand how that language raised eyebrows amongst Irving’s colleagues around the league. Irving has since posted an honest apology on social media and has met with members of Brooklyn’s organization, including Tsai. Many believe the other alleged conditions, such as being forced to donate money or meet with certain people, appear degrading. Irving’s supporters point to Tsai, whose business dealings as a co-founder of Alibaba Group, the Chinese approximate equivalent to Amazon, aren’t public but may be ripe for further examination. You have to believe that anyone wishing to gain a foothold in Chinese markets has had to play ball with a corrupt Communist dictatorship, which has its own ongoing list of atrocities against minority groups. Tsai is highly regarded for his extensive and generous philanthropy, but has that been enough to atone for his silence on these issues?
I'd note that Irving, unlike Tsai, has faced much media questioning, even though his initial return-to-play apology interview was with the team's broadcast partner. 

About the company culture

Tsai was also asked how his experience as executive chairman of the e-commerce behemoth Alibaba translated to owning the team.

"At Alibaba, we're direct to consumer, but sports... are biz to biz... same principles of leadership and managing people carry over," he said. "You have to make sure that not only do your employees show up because there’s a paycheck, but because they show up to work because they love the culture of the company, they understand very clearly what ownership is about, and you have to very clearly communicate those values to your employees. And either they agree with you or they don’t. For those that don’t, they slowly drop off but then you end up with a good core group of passionate people."

That, today, remains in question. Irving is too valuable not to play this season. He may have lost trade value, but if the Nets don't trade him, they might lose him as a free agent--unless they re-sign him.

The limits of speech?

Given Irving's unwillingness to comment on the Black Hebrew Israelite demonstrators on his behalf, and his ally and fellow NBA Players Association leader Jaylen Brown (of the Boston Celtics) tweeting in seeming favor and then deleting it, it's a reminder that 1) maybe we shouldn't be listening so much to professional athletes and 2) we might not agree with them.

Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic quoted Substack writer Ethan Strauss:
If you buy into the idea that what athletes say is very important, as the NBA has, you can find yourself obsessively managing what they have to say, or, in this instance, what they happen to believe.

And what do NBA players happen to believe on the Jewish topic? How many players share Irving’s general outlook? … I couldn’t tell you, but it’s a nontrivial amount, even if LeBron James is trying to create some distance between Irving and the others... Kyrie Irving’s views on The Jews would not qualify him as some outlandish NBA outlier. He’s nuts, but his brand of nuts is fairly normal fare, even from a variety of athletes you probably like and root for.

The Jews are just one no-go zone for an NBA that actively encouraged its players to express themselves on social issues. Does the NBA want the unfiltered takes on women out there? What about gays? [That links to a large number of casually homophobic tweets from players] The NBA made a big show of moving its All-Star Game from North Carolina over the “trans bathroom bill.” Anyone in the league office want the uncensored modal NBA take on trans out there? This all prompts a question of the NBA: If these guys have takes that terrify you, then why did you encourage them to shout their opinions from rooftops? Yes, we can all understand abiding the opinions expressed by players. Again, I favor expansive free speech and dislike when corporations aggressively punish it. But why did you merge your organization with their messaging in an attempt to morally instruct the country?

… Kyrie is his own special case, but he’s also what happens in a league that refuses to establish boundaries. If expressing yourself is part of the product, then the product is under threat when self-expression goes bad.