The NBA has been one of the fastest-growing leagues in the world since 2010. The NBA is full of unique superstars with engaging personalities, so it’s easy for fans to immerse themselves and feel as if they personally know some of their favorite athletes. From gaming with fans to social media interactions and television opportunities, the elite talent in the NBA seems to be more marketable and more involved than many of the marquee players in the NFL and other sports. This is not to say that NFL athletes are not marketable, but the NBA has blown away the NFL in terms of endorsement revenue. In 2018, the top ten endorsement earners in the NBA made a combined $234 million off the court compared to the $90 million made by the top ten NFL earners. This is just one measure that proves NBA stars are the most marketable athletes in the United States, without playing in the most popular sports league.
However, the NBA has not always been a forward-thinking league. In 2005, NBA Commissioner David Stern implemented a pre-game dress code for players in an attempt to solve some image issues caused by the Malice at the Palace, a large brawl between two NBA teams. This dress code required athletes to wear business casual attire to all games. The dress code was criticized for targeting black players because it specifically outlawed the wearing of chains, headphones, shorts, headgear or hats, t-shirts and all sports apparel. However, after Stern was replaced as NBA Commissioner in 2014, the dress code has not been enforced and since has been used to attract fashion brands to sponsor NBA superstars for their pre-game attire.
The NBA’s loosened grip on their players is what allows their athletes to be so marketable. NBA players are allowed and encouraged to show their personality, voice their opinions, and use their platform within their communities. Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan recently led a campaign bringing attention to the lack of mental health awareness in the NBA. Now all NBA teams will be required to have a mental health professional on staff. Golden State Warriors Head Coach Steve Kerr has been openly and publicly critical of President Donald Trump with no backlash from the NBA. In fact, many players in the NBA have voiced their political opinions, and even taken stances during the national anthem with little to no repercussion.
The NBA’s lenient handling of its employees is very different from the NFL’s handling of Colin Kaepernick, who was ultimately pushed out of the NFL for protests similar to those practiced in the NBA. The NFL is also widely scrutinized for its lack of mental health awareness and not prioritizing the safety of their players. In recent years the NFL faced a lawsuit from former players, citing the league had knowledge of the damaging effects of head trauma and injuries, but chose to withhold the information from their players. This lawsuit cost the league nearly $1 billion. An unwillingness to provide freedom of expression and a lack of awareness for player safety only represent a few of the NFL’s issues.
The NFL has always restricted what players are allowed to wear on gameday, and has even fined players for everything from wearing their socks incorrectly to having cleats that support causes such as breast cancer. While they have loosened their dress code over recent years, they have obviously attempted to suppress the player’s ability of expression.
I believe the NFL wants their players to be charitable and do good in their respective communities, and many NFL athletes fit that description. Who could forget Houston Texans player J.J. Watt raising millions of dollars for Hurricane Harvey relief? Even though there are many marketable players in the NFL with the potential to be endorsement and media superstars, the NFL has not created an environment that is conducive to that end. Until the NFL loosens its grip on its players, NFL stars may never truly be able to express themselves enough to attract the same amount of attention and money as the superstars of the NBA.