A recent internet meme juxtaposing two injured athletes has made the rounds over social media, and it speaks volumes about how sports fans view the NBA’s degree of physicality. At the top of the image, it shows LeBron James being carried away by teammates with a look of agony smeared across his face—he had just suffered a leg cramp. The second player in the image is Dallas Stars forward Rich Peverley of the NHL, who had suffered a near-fatal heart attack midway through a game and, after being revived, asked medical staff if he could return to the ice. This image reignited the debate over whether the NBA has grown “soft,” and prompted many to compare the league against its “tougher” NHL and NFL counterparts. Fans of sports more notorious than the NBA for fighting and injury will vehemently say that it can’t. However, despite the NBA’s apparent softness, understanding what its athletes go through on a regular basis paints a completely different picture.
Photo: Erik Drost/Creative Commons
The casual NBA fan will ask why so many fouls are called over the course of a game. That’s because basketball is meant to be a game of finesse. The pace of it—for the most part—has a considerably more free-flowing nature in comparison with other team sports. Due to basketball’s emphasis on skill and agility, the referees will do everything in their power—again,for the most part—to reinforce that philosophy. It’s also important to note that just because fouls are being called, it doesn’t mean the players are actually getting hurt.
More than a decade ago, the game was certainly more physical. The whistles were blown less often, which made it more difficult to draw fouls (especially for big men). This approach gave birth to a trend in today’s NBA that almost warrants the stereotypes that the league is slapped with, one effectively known as “flopping.” Although flopping isn’t new in the league (veterans Reggie Miller, Sam Cassell and Vlade Divac are three of its Hall-of-Famers), it has become the norm in this generation as a means of getting calls swung in their team’s favour. Is it for the sake of strategy? Sure, but the players won’t complain about accusations of softness being thrown their way if they can come out on top abusing the flop method.
Whenever the debate over the NBA’s degree of physicality arises, there’s always the constant comparison between hockey and basketball, but drawing a parallel there is comparing two very different games with two very different sets of equipment and rules. First of all, hockey players are protected head to toe with padding, helmets and armor. They even wear cups for goodness sake, although we’d never begrudge other men the opportunity to protect what’s important. On the other hand, basketball players can only be protected so much by dry-fit jerseys, shooting sleeves and compression spandex. When’s the last time you’ve ever heard of a hockey player rolling their ankle as they’re weaving through traffic, or leaping 40 inches into the air as a conventional method of scoring? Not to downplay the risks that stick-handlers face on a nightly basis, but to take what NBA players do for granted just because they don’t wear pads is the wrong mindset. The rigorous conditioning that they have to go through and the risks that they have to take on for the betterment of their team really have to be respected.
Ah, but then there’s the fighting. There exists a double standard between the two when it comes to that square dance. When hockey players fight, it’s expected. When it doesn’t happen, some fans will actually be disappointed that they didn’t get their rock ‘em sock ‘em fix that night. In basketball, however, the minute players rely on one another for facial ventilation, so many pundits across the board will scream out unsportsmanslike in the wake of violence. Granted, either game’s culture is at the root of their respective levels of physicality, but in all fairness, let’s call a spade a spade. No one is saying that Metta World Peace should be given a mere slap on the wrist for the Malice at the Palace, but questioning the toughness of NBA players because they would rather not pay a fine and risk ejection from a game is highly unreasonable, especially if the stakes are high.
Lastly, the NBA is predominantly played by black Americans. The last thing the league needs is its players reinforcing negative stereotypes as they pertain to persons of colour, especially hackneyed assumptions that their “penchant for physicality” may lead to an MMA bout breaking out at centre court.
The NBA’s “soft” tag may inadvertently originate from its Euro league counterpart, whose influence on western play is increasing every season. If sports fans on this side of the hemisphere feel that basketball is a bit too delicate for their liking, then they should take the time to watch how Europe plays. There, finesse is emphasized on an entirely different level. Their level of physicality approaches touch football, and their attitude on defense would make Mike D’Antoni proud (which isn’t a good thing).
Regardless of either league’s reputation for toughness, the game of basketball as a whole requires a great deal of physicality. However, neither the NBA nor its fans require their players to channel that energy into unarmed combat. Playing basketball already carries its own risks, which are carefully mediated by rules that reinforce its finesse-based philosophy while downplaying the need for protective gear. To those that remain unconvinced: try playing in an NBA player’s size fifteens for the longest 48 minutes of your life. Your perspective might just change.