Sports is a business, and like all businesses, its success relies on the strength of its relationships with other businesses. Sports teams, arenas, broadcasting networks, and clothing and food brands are all entangled in this thing called the sports-corporate media nexus. They work together to establish global markets, brand visibility and most importantly, revenue. For example, a sports team has contracts with the arena it plays in, the network that broadcasts its games and the clothing brands that create its uniforms. In a system like this, everybody eats as long as they don’t violate their contracts.

When it comes to sponsorship deals between teams and powerhouse clothing brands such as Nike, this means not affiliating with any brand that Nike considers a competitor. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, Cavaliers shooting guard, J.R. Smith, did the exact opposite of that when he tattooed the Supreme logo on the back of his right leg.

The American street wear brand is one of Nike’s competitors, and since Nike and the NBA currently have an apparel deal worth roughly one billion dollars, the NBA had no choice but to warn the Cavs player that he will be fined if he doesn’t cover up his impressive, yet conflicting tattoo during games.

In an Instagram post, Smith flashed the middle-finger emoji and expressed his frustration towards the league in the following statement:

“These people in the league office are something else,” Smith wrote. “I swear I’m the only person they do s**t like this to. So you mean to tell me I have to cover up my tattoo for what? You don’t make people cover up Jordan logos, NIKE checks or anything else but because it’s me it’s a problem all of a sudden!!! S**t whack.”

Smith is right: The NBA’s rule that forbids players from displaying commercial logos on their bodies is totally whack. But in the world we live in right now, it also makes sense. In modern sports, branding is the name of the game. It is how teams and even the players make money.

NBA owners and players share basketball-related income, also referred to as BRI. This income includes profit generated by apparel contracts, in addition to revenue from NBA broadcasts, arena signage and other assets.

According to sports legal analyst, Michael McCann, “NBA players receive between 49% and 51% of BRI. A higher BRI translates into a higher salary cap for NBA teams and thus higher salaries for players. If the NBA loses money in sponsorship deals because a player’s tattoo compromises a sponsorship agreement, NBA players will share in that loss.”

McCann goes on to suggest that although some NBA players may feel for J.R., they are better off if the league enforces its rule. This does not only help maintain a lucrative and peaceful business relationship with Nike, but also “protects the players’ financial interest.”

As I said, this world makes sense. Folks have to be paid, families fed. Everyday living requires money and for NBA athletes who reside in a much higher tax bracket than most of the population, it requires lots of money.

But what happens when we go along with the censorship of an individual in the name of revenue?

Smith is also correct in his claim that other NBA players are allowed to show off their Jumpman and Nike logo tattoos, but that’s only because those brands are part of Nike’s. When a player tattoos its logo on his body, Nike only benefits. That’s a lifetime supply of free advertising right there, nobody’s going to stop that.

So despite what the rules say, the NBA doesn’t really care if their players tattoo commercial logos on their bodies – as long as those commercial logos don’t conflict with their sponsorship deals. It’s not a personal attack on J.R., it’s just business.

It’s also how mass censorship begins.

Smith did not make any kind of profit by tattooing the Supreme logo on his leg. The guy just wanted to express himself with a new tattoo. By demanding that he cover it up in order to promote the financial interests of the majority, while reasonable in terms of business, is an extremely dangerous precedent when it comes to the athlete’s right to govern his own body.

You can’t enter a professional sports arena in the United States without being bombarded by advertisements. Because teams sell rights to everything from stadium names to special seating sections and mid-game entertainment performances, the sporting experience becomes heavily branded. In the NBA, even the jerseys the players wear are branded.

It might seem like the players’ bodies are the only space the league has not chosen to advertise on, but this doesn’t mean the league doesn’t have control over them.

In threatening to fine J.R. for choosing to brand himself with an unaffiliated logo, the NBA is essentially saying that although they don’t use their players’ bodies to advertise anything, they still have a right to control and censor them – especially when they’re interfering with their hustle, as in the case with Smith’s Supreme leg tattoo.

This feeds back into the notion that athletes in today’s society are owned by team owners and managers, and therefore become commodified to the point of dehumanization. This situation shows us that these players have no real autonomy over their bodies and never will if we continue to prioritize profit over the rights of the individual.

History has shown us that as soon as we start to suppress the voice and self-expression of one person, we’re all in trouble. It’s a domino effect that doesn’t stop until everyone who’s considered opposition is silenced and beaten down. Today, it’s J.R. Five years ago, it was Iman Shumpert – former New York Knicks guard who was forced by the NBA to shave the Adidas logo out of his hair. Tomorrow, it could be anybody for any number of reasons…Tomorrow, the reach of censorship could be so far that even eating a snack not affiliated with the NBA will constitute a fine.

Iman Shumpert, Adidas, 2013, Instagram, NBA
Iman Shumpert’s Adidas Haircut from 2013 via his Instagram

Again, the NBA and its rules dictating what players can and cannot do with their own bodies are reasonable when we think about them from a business perspective, and remember that our society is inherently motivated by money. In fact, we can even say that the NBA is a role model for the world we live in: A world where it’s okay to censor another human being’s body; a world that says that making a profit is more important than protecting each others’ basic human rights.

We can hold the NBA and its profit-driven attitude as good and just. We can continue to live in this impersonal, capitalistic world, or, we can decide that it’s not a world worth fighting for; that although money makes the world go round, freedom of self-expression keeps our souls alive.