Fixing the Ja Morant problem

Morant, a brilliant NBA star, is just 23. If he is a good guy, he’ll endure the new suspension and be better for it. If not, he will be on a slippery slope to a much worse place, a law professor and sports historian writes.

Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant brings the ball up court during the first half of an NBA preseason basketball game against the Chicago Bulls in 2021

Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant brings the ball up court during the first half of an NBA preseason basketball game against the Chicago Bulls in 2021.

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

On Friday, the National Basketball Association penalized Memphis Grizzlies star Ja Morant. Again. The league gave him a 25-game suspension to start the 2023 season after a second video showed him flashing a gun. Some will criticize what seems to be a lenient approach by the NBA, but the league may be on the right track.

Morant previously drew an eight-game suspension in March for brandishing a gun in another Instagram Live video. Much ado ensued about remorse, growth, and discipline. A lot hinges on whether Morant is a bad dude, or a good guy who made a mistake. An overreaction by the league could hurt Morant’s team and make matters worse for Morant himself. Being too lenient could send the wrong message during a time of gun culture concerns for the league.

Alternatively, perhaps the NBA should have invoked a stern two-stage penalty that puts Morant in a position to answer for himself, a win-win if it could work. Start with the 25 games, but with a probation feature: any future violations would automatically extend the suspension to include the whole season. Yes, the league has imposed conditions for his return, but a bigger looming hammer could be more effective.

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Did Morant allege the second incident involved only a toy gun, as some suggested? That would actually be irrelevant, for the commissioner would still be concerned about the message to youthful NBA fans. Arguing whether it was a toy is a distraction if the blatant visual image glorifies guns and becomes “conduct detrimental to the league,” as the NBA has found.

Counseling was part of the first suspension, and that should continue. After all, Morant recently posted some oddly cryptic messages that provoked a wellness check by authorities. Sports have become more sensitive to the mental health needs of the athletes, all of whom are under intense scrutiny, most have too much money too soon, and many are saddled with an entourage of old friends along for the ride. The recent experiences of NBA player Andre Drummond, tennis star Naomi Osaka, and top gymnast Simone Biles have all expanded awareness of mental health issues for elite athletes.

The stakes are high. Was Morant showing off, pretending to be a gangster, or just being a reckless kid? The dubious career of dominant NFL tight end Aaron Hernandez, who caught Tom Brady passes for three years at the New England Patriots, ended tragically. In 2012, he signed a $39.58 million dollar contract extension. In 2013 he was arrested for murder, released by the Patriots, then convicted and imprisoned in 2015. Eventually he was found dead in his cell.

Morant is a brilliant, speedy NBA star. He was the second overall pick in the 2019 draft (Zion Williamson was first), and he is just 23 years old. If he is a good guy, he’ll endure the new suspension and be better for it. If not, he will be on a slippery slope to a much worse place and a very pricey lesson, since player suspensions are typically without pay.

In 2010, Wizards star Gilbert Arenas was suspended a full year for having at least three guns in his team locker, possibly also brandishing them over an alleged gambling dispute with teammate Javaris Crittenton. In 1997, the Warriors’ Latrell Sprewell was suspended for 68 games, the remainder of a season, for an argument and prolonged physical altercation with his coach at practice. But a long initial suspension could have made matters worse if it left Morant to his own devices. It would also be a burden on his team, the Memphis Grizzlies, which does not seem to be at fault.

The 25-game penalty means the NBA is serious but has faith in Morant. The NBA under Adam Silver has proven to be a relatively supportive players’ league. This shorter but meaningful suspension may afford a fair third chance. Hopefully it is enough to save Morant from himself.

Eldon Ham is a member of the faculty at IIT/Chicago-Kent College of Law, teaching sports, law and justice. He is the author of five books on the role of sports history in America.

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