Professional-sports selection is a dehumanizing process, especially in the NBA, where you have young, athletic black men inspected like cattle by mostly white, wealthy owners and general managers. Their health is checked; their athletic prowess is tested; they are asked asinine questions that sometimes take things too far and become invasive.
Then, once this is all over, teams take turns selecting them like slaves on an auction block. The athletes are virtually powerless during this process. They have little say in which city they will live. They cannot demand that a team that has survivable chemistry draft them. They must go where they are selected and endure indignities along the way.
Kris Dunn is brilliantly manipulating this system.
“Kris Dunn hasn’t done a team workout with a little more than a week to go before the draft. He’s refusing to do [one-on-none] workouts [and he] will only work out for teams if it’s against Ben Simmons, Brandon Ingram or Jamal Murray, source says," ESPN insider Chad Ford writes.
Further, Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports reports that Dunn’s agent will not release the medical records of the 6-foot-4 point guard from New London, Conn.: “His agents are going to control that process. They don’t want him to go to a team that has a young, established point guard. You look at Boston with Isaiah Thomas, Marcus Smart; Phoenix at No. 4 with Brandon Knight, Eric Bledsoe. Those teams are very likely, I’m told, not going to get Kris Dunn’s medical records.”
By insisting that he only works out with and plays Ben Simmons, Brandon Ingram and Jamal Murray (players expected to be selected higher in the draft), Dunn is stacking the deck in his favor. Demanding to work out only against these players might seem counterintuitive. One could argue that common sense would dictate that Dunn should want to be seen next to players who are inferior to boost his appeal by comparison. Many are voicing that concern. However, upon careful examination, one can see why this strategy is utterly brilliant.
Teams that invited Dunn to work out need to see that he is able to perform on the court in person. Years of playing for Providence are insufficient; NBA coaches and general managers want to see what he can do when running their drills. Dunn is acquiescing to their demands; yet by playing against players expected to go higher in the draft, he is not setting himself up for a lower pick.
If he works out with people who are, to his mind, inferior players, he could lose money if he underperforms. By limiting the workout to those who are considered superior athletes, he has a chance to outperform them and move up, but if he underperforms with them, he will not drop lower in the draft. He is doing what is asked of him, but he is not setting himself up for failure.
As stated above, players who desire to enter professional sports are virtually powerless as they go through the selection process. Dunn is pushing back against this denial of agency—and he is not the only one.
Louisiana State University’s Ben Simmons, the presumptive first overall pick in the draft, initially declined the Philadelphia 76ers invitation to work out. According to ESPN, he would not do individual workouts unless the team promised to pick him first. This move represents an attempt on the part of Simmons to control where he will spend the first years of his career. While this is not something every player can do, considering both the relative lack of depth in this year’s draft class and the exceptional athletic prowess of Simmons, this is a gamble worth taking.
The 76ers will select him, but in doing so they risk bringing in a player who could be, shall we say, less than enthusiastic playing for the team. If Simmons is not selected by the team for which he desires to play (the Los Angeles Lakers), he is, nevertheless, controlling his selection process, and I can have nothing but respect for a man who has found a way to do things his way while remaining the presumptive No. 1 pick.
The NBA selection process is predicated on the notion that athletes should be humbled and honored to be selected by a team and, therefore, meekly fall in line with a dehumanizing process that compromises their agency. In the eyes of many, the trade-off is that athletes are well-compensated upon being drafted. Dunn and Simmons teach us that while this power imbalance can never be fully undone, there are ways that players can influence where they go, and how high they are selected, even after they are inspected like cattle.
Lawrence Ware is a progressive writer in a conservative state. A frequent contributor to Counterpunch and Dissent magazine, he is also a contributing editor of NewBlackMan (in Exile) and the Democratic Left. He has been featured in the New York Times and discussed race and politics on HuffPost Live, NPR and Public Radio International. Ware’s book on the life and thought of C.L.R. James will be published by Verso Books in the fall of 2017. Follow him on Twitter.