There is nothing specific in the NBA rulebook about players hurling gay slurs at fans or referees. But there is a high-profile NBA campaign against hate speech directed at gays. So when Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah yelled an anti-gay slur at a fan in Miami last Sunday night, the NBA wasted little time in slapping him with a $50,000 fine. A month before, Lakers guard Kobe Bryant used the same word on a ref and got $100,000 fine.
The NBA’s swift discipline is designed to mold players’ behavior to fit societal norms – and to keep basketball fans happy. So the size of NBA fines is a rough guide to how the league judges bad behavior – from merely uncool to completely unacceptable.
The NBA rulebook states that “physically contacting” or “disrespectfully addressing” a referee costs a player or coach a technical foul. Such fouls come with fines that start at $1,000 and increase until the season’s 16th, which also brings a one-game suspension.
Penalties have also grown when bad-mouthing occurs after a game. In April 2006, the NBA fined then-Miami Heat center Shaquille O’Neal $15,000 for calling his team’s 90-78 loss to the New Jersey Nets “the most ridiculous game I’ve ever been part of” and criticizing NBA officiating executive Stu Jackson. The league also fined Dallas owner Mark Cuban $100,000 that year for stepping on the court to complain about a call. “Giving less qualified officials an opportunity to officiate playoff games as a reward gives the official a nice attaboy, but it risks the quality of our product,” Cuban later wrote on a blog. That post cost him an additional $100,000.
The NBA tries to be family entertainment. So when a player swears on television, he had better be ready to put a nickel in the jar.
In March 2004, Houston guard Steve Francis told ESPN’s Jim Gray that an official’s decision not to call a foul on a player obstructing his way to the basket was “some B.S.” (he used the long form). Francis later apologized, but the NBA fined him $25,000 anyway.
Earlier that year, O’Neal was suspended for one game without pay after swearing twice in a post-game interview when asked about officiating. “People pay good money to come watch these athletes play, and they [the refs] try to take over the [expletive] game,” he said. If we count one game as 1 / 82 of a season, the suspension cost O’Neal $295,000.
Of course, players need not open their mouths to be profane. In April 2007, forward Adam Morrison waved his middle finger at a fan in a manner not befitting a Charlotte Bobcat. For flipping the bird, he was charged $25,000.
The NBA appears to take sex crimes about as seriously as profanity. In May 2001, Seattle forward Ruben Patterson pleaded guilty to charges that he tried to rape his family’s nanny. The NBA suspended him for the first five games of the next season, which he began with the Portland Trailblazers (a team later known as the “Jail Blazers”). Patterson’s salary of $4.5 million meant that missing five games cost about $275,000.
At least the league can take sex offenses more seriously than the law often seems to. In February 2002, Utah Jazz guard DeShawn Stevenson pleaded no contest to the statutory rape of a 14-year-old girl. The state of California sentenced him to 100 hours of community service and fined him $1,100. But the NBA suspended him for three games, which, at his $890,280 salary, cost him around $33,000.
The NBA has suspended at least four players for 10 games for violating what it calls its Anti-Drug Program, established in 1983 to curb recreational drug use. It now includes performance-enhancers.
Drug fines have varied with player salaries. For example, Orlando’s Rashard Lewis would have been the NBA’s ninth-highest-paid player in the 2009-2010 season, with a salary of $18.9 million, but an elevated testosterone level cost him 10 games, or more than $2.3 million. However, Detroit point guard Lindsey Hunter’s entire salary in 2007 was just under $2.3 million — a little less than Lewis’s fine. Forced to sit 10 games after he tested positive for the weight-loss drug phentermine, he lost only $280,000.
Since 2009, the NBA has suspended at least nine players for striking or swinging at the head or face of an opponent. In April, for example, the league benched Orlando guard Quentin Richardson for two games after he shoved Charlotte guard Gerald Henderson in the face. At Richardson’s salary of about $2.3 million, the suspension cost him about $55,000. He was also ejected from the game, which carries an automatic $1,000 penalty.
This month, the league suspended Lakers forward Andrew Bynum for five games for a brutal takedown of Dallas guard J.J. Barea in the last game of the Mavericks’ playoff sweep of Los Angeles. Bynum will pay the price next season, when he’s slated to make $15.2 million. At that salary, missing five games will cost $925,000, not including the ejection fine.
The league has less tolerance for violence committed off the court. In 1997, the NBA suspended Golden State guard Latrell Sprewell for a full year for grabbing coach P.J. Carlesimo by the throat and choking him during practice. His suspension was later reduced to 68 games. The Warriors voided his contract, but Sprewell later said the incident cost him $6.4 million.
Since 2004, the NBA has suspended at least four players for packing heat. Most recently, the commissioner suspended Washington Wizards Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenton for half of the 2009-2010 season after each brought a gun into their locker room. (For the record, their team’s name was changed from “Bullets” in 1997 because the owner had grown weary of its connotation.)
When suspended, Arenas was in the second year of a six-year deal worth $111 million. He got a little more than half of his salary for the year but left more than $7 million on the table. For Crittenton, who was still bound by a rookie contract, the stakes were lower. He lost only $670,000.
Mark Glassman is a journalist living in New York and a fan of the Miami Heat.