COMMENTARY 767.1a (Bonus): Is Pro Basketball “Just” a Business? Dumping Derek Fisher Is Lawful but Awful


It’s just a business.

Virtually all my friends and fellow fans of the Los Angeles Lakers were content with this justification in response to my protest of the Lakers’ surprising decision to trade a much-loved 16-year-veteran player who had made a huge contribution to the team’s unity and success over the 13 years he’d been a member.

When I claimed it was unkind, disrespectful and disloyal, some just shrugged, satisfied that if it was a smart financial move to avoid or reduce the “luxury tax,” it was justified on its own.

Others believed (or wanted to believe) that the act was not a “salary dump,” but a justifiable move to improve the team, and that improving the team in a way that increases the chances of winning is the highest ethical obligation of management.

None were particularly concerned about the way the dismissal was done — without even a courtesy “heads up,”* nor thought that the impacts on Fisher, his family, friends, teammates, and fans were legitimate factors to hinder an otherwise smart business decision. After all, everyone knows pro basketball is just a business.

There are two things wrong with this reasoning.

First, the implication of the “it’s just a business” phrase is that business decisions should be judged only in terms of lawfulness and effectiveness. This is nonsense. There may be those who want to take the humanity factor out of business, but they can’t. When as a business action affects the lives of people it can and should be looked at through the lens of ethical and moral principles. Second, even if ordinary businesses have greater leeway to ignore certain ethical values, professional sports teams are not just like any other business; they have special characteristics that impose special moral obligations.

Let’s start with the notion that lawful business decisions are immune from moral judgment because the only thing that matters in business is making a profit. I respectfully suggest that this view — advanced by free market economists like Milton Friedman,** or later by the fictional character Gordon Gekko (who declared in the movie Wall Street, that “greed is good”),” — is a nonstarter.

I know of no prominent business leader asserting this position. In fact, in discussing the financial crises precipitated by legal but irresponsible mortgage practices, one of the most influential bank executives in the world, Stephen Green, chairman of HSBC, said:

Of course you need a profit, but it is a by-product, a hallmark of success. It is not the be all and end all. It is not the raision d’etre of business. What is the purpose of business? Friedman says the social responsibility of business is to make a profit but that will no longer do. Plain common sense will tell you that that cannot do.

An alternative to the Friedman/Gekko position is the view that businesses and business executives should acknowledge and live up to principles of corporate social responsibility, a concept grounded in the premise that business organizations have ethical obligations beyond obeying the law and satisfying the needs of owners and shareholders. These include a moral duty to look out for the welfare of a network of stakeholders: employees, suppliers and vendors, the community in which it operates, and society at large.

If a company terminated employees shortly before their pensions vest as a cost-cutting measure; closed a plant without consideration of its impact on employees, their families and the community; or knowingly polluted ground water, few people would give it the same free ride that basketball fans are giving the Lakers. (It’s no coincidence that the word “fan” is derived from the same root as fanatic).

Of course, each of these situations raise different and distinguishable issues, and my point is not to equate what the Lakers did to these examples, but to say that it is appropriate and important to evaluate business decisions in moral terms.

Derek Fisher was an employee, an exceptionally good employee, and in my view, he deserved, and the Lakers could have treated him with, greater respect, kindness and loyalty. What the Lakers did was lawful but it was also awful.

Sports is not just a business.

It is much more. I believe that team owners and executives have an even higher responsibility to demonstrate honor, fair play, decency, and integrity than regular businesses do.

In 1999, in an effort to articulate a framework of ethical principles and values for youth and amateur sports, a conclave of many of the most important people in sports issued this statement:

At its best, athletic competition can hold intrinsic value for our society. It is a symbol of a great ideal: pursuing victory with honor. The love of sports is deeply embedded in our national consciousness.

The values of millions of participants and spectators are directly and dramatically influenced by the values conveyed by organized sports. Thus, sports are a major social force that shapes the quality and character of the American culture.

Our views as to what is permissible and proper in the competitive pursuit of personal goals are shaped by the dominant values conveyed in in sports and by high profile athletes. 

Those who influence these values have an enormous power to uplift and improve the nature and character of our society.

(The document is the basis of the national Pursuing Victory with Honor campaign. Similar sentiments were expressed in a proclamation of the National Association of Basketball Coaches a few years later Gold Medal Standards)

Yes, these statements were made in the context of amateur sports but, from an ethical perspective, I think they apply with even greater force to professional sports.

There’s no doubt that professional sports are a major social force that shapes the quality and character of the American culture, or that our views as to what is permissible and proper in the competitive pursuit of personal goals are shaped by the dominant values conveyed in in sports.

So, what message does the act of blind-siding Fisher, his teammates, and fans send? It’s just a business; players are commodities, it’s either all about money or all about winning.

If the decision was just about money, it was unnecessary and unjustified.

The Lakers are one of the most successful and profitable franchises in sports. They owed Fisher more than his minimal contractual rights.

Derek Fisher is not just likable like Lamar Odom, or Luke Walton, or any number of other nice guys who were traded – yes, that is part of the business. He was a truly iconic leader who was material in winning championships and holding the team together through rough times.

He deserved to have some choices, some notice, some extra consideration — even to be untouchable from a trading perspective.

He deserved to serve out his term in dignity, even if he sat on the bench or was converted to coaching  while doing it. And you know what? The Lakers could have afforded that.

But what if the decision was it was about winning rather than money? What if the reason the Lakers traded Fisher was to improve their chances of getting another championship? Surely winning is a much more noble goal than increasing the take-home profits of the owners. Isn’t winning all that the City of Los Angeles and Lakers fans everywhere want? Surely it’s ethical to do whatever you have to do to win.

Really? So winning really is everything?

To be sure, lots of people put winning above all else and, therefore will tolerate, even applaud any action that improves their chances of satisfying their hunger for championships.

Well, I’m a huge Laker fan, a season ticket holder. I go to almost every game, and I feel good when they win and bad when they don’t. But I also have come to care about the players. I care if they get hurt, not only because it is a competitive disadvantage, but because they are people who have inspired and entertained me. I owe them something for that – and so do the Lakers.

No, winning isn’t everything.

Honor is.


*The Lakers informed Fisher of the trade through his representatives, and Kupchak said he has not spoken to the 16-year veteran directly yet. He also said he did not give Fisher a “heads-up” that the trade was coming, but thought Fisher may have “caught wind of the rumor” several days ago. If there was really any doubt this was a money issue to add a few more dollars to the profits of the Buss family, note that Houston wanted to get rid of the contract of the player they traded for Fisher and they released Fisher as soon as they could. Fisher may end up fine but all indications are that he was “crushed” at the decsion. That’s pretty serious harm to do to a family member just to save a few bucks. Also, the arguments that Ramon Sessions is better than Fisher are irrelevant — of course he is and that acquisition was smart and proper as would be the reduction or even elimination of Fisher’s playing time. The point is that dumping Fisher had no effect on getting Sessions — they already had him and the issue of whether Fisher would have been okay with losing his starter role is another nonstarter — give him the choice!

**Milton Friedman: “Do corporate executives, provided they stay within the law, have responsibilities in their business activities other than to make as much money for their stockholders as possible? And my answer to that is, no they do not.”  Also see “The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits” in The New York Times Magazine (13 September 1970)


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