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Ja Morant, Draymond Green and the NBA’s rehabilitation conundrum

When the league combines punishments with messaging of rehabilitation, it opens itself up to more scrutiny

Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant’s return to the NBA after his 25-game suspension, the result of “conduct detrimental to the league” on the heels of an Instagram post in which he was seen flashing a gun, has been spectacular from a basketball perspective. Morant’s return has included a game-winning basket against the New Orleans Pelicans, a four-game winning streak and the return of his otherworldly highlight reel.

The spotlight, however, has remained on Morant’s behavior. At the end of the Dec. 26 game against the Pelicans, Morant did a dance that many interpreted as him making gun gestures with his hand. The reaction was immediate outrage and ridicule from analysts, fans and everyone in between despite the fact that Morant was simply doing the “Rock Ya Hips” dance, which is popular in Louisiana, to mock the Pelicans, a dance that has no gun gestures in it.

By the time the explanation came out the next day, it was too late. The outrage, criticism and dissection were immediate and only acted as a reminder that Morant is also being asked to perform rehabilitation by a league and society that have no track record of separating the act of said rehabilitation from its usual remedy: punishment.

If the NBA and its viewers want to actually respond with a star’s best interests in mind, they need to decide what actual rehabilitation looks like and if that is the actual goal instead of simply doing image control for the league.

Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant (left) talks with Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green (right) during Game 3 of the 2022 Western Conference semifinals on May 7, 2022, at Chase Center in San Francisco.

Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

When Morant was suspended back in May, NBA commissioner Adam Silver commented that “Ja Morant’s decision to once again wield a firearm on social media is alarming and disconcerting given his similar conduct in March for which he was already suspended eight games.” The central issue with Morant’s conduct was that he was flashing guns on social media and not necessarily his relationship with guns as a whole. For his part, Morant has complied with the initial issue he was suspended for: He hasn’t posted guns on social media in six months.

So what more do we want from Morant? If Morant flashed imaginary guns, would that be grounds for suspension? What about him waving his guns away from social media? Is it the seeming gun fanaticism Morant carries that’s the issue or is it the way he displayed them online? The league hasn’t answered these questions, and that’s a disservice to Morant. 

The lack of clarity about what we want from Morant speaks to a larger issue in the NBA — and society as a whole — when it comes to the function of punishment and its role in rehabilitation. Punishing someone for a malfeasance doesn’t work in changing their behaviors. It’s easier to rehabilitate when punishment isn’t present. This applies in the real world. Two out of three people who are incarcerated return to prison within three years largely due to the fact the criminal justice system is based on punishment and not rehabilitation — despite the fact that the latter is proven to yield better results.

The NBA is in the same murky territory with rehabilitation in its handling of Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green, who has been suspended indefinitely for multiple on-the-court incidents including choking Minnesota Timberwolves center Rudy Gobert and striking Phoenix Suns center Jusuf Nurkic in the head, with his years of similar instances playing into the decision. The NBA has required Green to participate in counseling as part of his suspension. It’s unclear as to how long the suspension, which has already lasted three weeks, will actually be, or what the metric is for Green’s readiness for a return. But again, punishment is a central tenet of the process.

Joe Dumars, NBA executive vice president of basketball operations, justified the indefinite nature of the suspension by focusing on rehabilitation but the methodology falls short: “Indefinite means, ‘Get yourself right. We want to see you at your best,’ and the best way for you to do that is to get yourself mentally and emotionally back to where you need to be. So that’s how we got to indefinite,” Dumars said. By stripping away Green’s paycheck, his incentive isn’t to get better for his own mental and emotional benefit. His incentive is to be good enough to return and begin earning money again. That’s where combining punishment with the idea of rehab is problematic.

Though Green is being required to enter therapy, it’s unclear what the metric is for a healed Green. Is it Green never getting into a physical altercation on the court? If he does, will there just be more punishment? More therapy? This is where a league that is touting the idea of rehabilitation leaves too much ambiguity in articulating exactly how that works.

The NBA, in creating a punishment-based facsimile of a real-world criminal justice system, is also ill-equipped to truly rehabilitate anyone, especially if that rehabilitation goes hand in hand with often arbitrary punishments. The only thing punishment truly ensures is that someone works harder to not get caught. Morant’s punishment won’t stop him from being reckless with guns. They’ll just stop him from being reckless with guns on social media without anyone really knowing if he’s changed his actions in private.

Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant (left) goes to the basket during the game against San Antonio Spurs center Victor Wembanyama (right) at FedExForum on Jan. 2 in Memphis.

Justin Ford/Getty Images

If we want Morant to make some grand evolution in his relationship to guns as a whole, that’s a totally different demand and one neither the NBA nor, quite frankly, anyone in America, is equipped to undertake. More than 40,000 people died from gun violence in America in 2023 and there are nearly two mass shootings a day. And yet, fanaticism over guns in America is unwavering. It’s hypocritical to expect any change in behavior with guns from one man in a country where no one is required to change their behaviors with guns in any meaningful way.

It just feels unreasonable to ask someone not to love and want to be around guns as much as possible in a country that celebrates gun ownership and a love of firearms. Which brings us back to the “Rock Ya Hips” dance. It’s easier to be outraged about pantomimed gun gestures and not interrogate the cultural and nationwide infatuation with guns that can make it incredibly difficult for a guy like Morant to disentangle his love of firearms from his daily life.

In July, Silver spoke of the urgency about Morant’s suspension: “I also feel particularly around guns and the gun violence we’re seeing among young people in our society that this is something we have to take incredibly seriously.” If that is the goal, though, it would take much more than six months of therapy to fix. Like Silver, I want Morant to be as responsible as possible with his guns. I’m not sure, though, that the NBA’s metric for that responsibility goes much further than Morant keeping them off of social media and keeping the NBA out of a controversy that involves a Black man and a gun.

When the NBA combines punishment with the messaging of rehabilitation, it only opens itself up to more scrutiny. If the NBA is simply doling out suspensions for how players are making the league look and preserving its image, that’s one thing — and totally justifiable. Just don’t pretend to be prioritizing actual healing for players when there isn’t any true apparatus to help make sure that happens.

David Dennis Jr. is a senior writer at Andscape and an American Mosaic Journalism Prize recipient. His book, The Movement Made Us, will be released in 2022. David is a graduate of Davidson College.