Max Foley-Keene on the Political Economy of the NBA

Nick Shereikis
October 5, 2021

Welcome to the Political Empathy Project Podcast, our monthly podcast series. In our second episode, or PEPPisode, founder Nick Shereikis sits down with guest Max Foley-Keene to discuss the political economy of the NBA, and its parallels with the 'social democratic' period that followed World War I.

Below is an excerpt from the full transcript—listen in wherever you listen to podcasts for the full episode!

Nick Shereikis: I'll admit right off the bat that I don't know too much about the NBA; I know basics. I've done a little research so we can have this conversation, obviously, but I don't follow as closely as you do. So I guess my initial question to kind of set us on course for this episode is: can you share your argument or thesis with us, or walk us through it a little bit? And then also talk a little about how you formed it? I'm curious—is this just something, like, a parallel that you noticed while you were doing research, and you decided you wanted to dive into it? Or was it prompted by something in particular?


Max Foley-Keene: So this is an argument about the NBA and social democracy. The basic argument is that the National Basketball Association—if you observe it from like, a 30,000 foot view, and look at its political economy—is in, or at least was in 2019 when I first came up with the take, what I call the 'social democratic period,' by which I was referring to kind of the social democratic governments and economies of the mid-20th century. When you had, after many decades of a lot of labor antagonism, like in the '20s and '30s—you saw both kind of broad prosperity, strong growth, and a kind of, you know, labor compromise between labor and management. And I was arguing that the NBA, throughout much of the 2010s, was in a very similar spot. And that the league was growing a lot. This is largely thanks to LeBron James, and also Steph Curry and the Warriors dynasty, and also good management of the league.

So the league was growing a lot. And revenue was growing a lot. And there became—after Commissioner Stern's 10 years, which were kind of defined by antagonism between players and management—in the 2010s, there was a kind of peace between the star players, the players union, and the league under the leadership of Adam Silver, the current Commissioner. And the argument in the piece was that at some point, this will end, and players involved in the union should kind of think about what happened in the mid-20th century and the social democratic governments and kind of learn lessons from that.

Why did I come up with this take? Well, I had to—when I was in college, I wrote a column every single week for like three and a half years. And so at a certain point, you just have to write takes. And I was like—I think I was really excited about the 2019 basketball season, because I thought it was gonna go really well, which it didn't. And I had fairly recently come back from Sweden, where I studied abroad for a semester and did a lot of reading about like Swedish social democracy. So it's kind of a classic column of just mish-mashing two interests of mine, and seeing where it got me.

Nick Shereikis: I think it's interesting that you give some credit to Sweden, and readings about Swedish democratic socialism. I want to come back to that in a second. But I guess, you know, the easy follow up is: you came up with this first in 2019, right? And obviously COVID, and the outbreak of the pandemic, has thrown a lot of things into sharper relief, and brought out different elements of different kinds of relationships, especially those involving capital and labor and the kinds of relationships that depend on profit. So I guess, can you talk a little bit about that, and kind of what you've seen? Now's your time to say I told you so.

Max Foley-Keene: Yeah, so this take was totally correct. I was really clairvoyant, in 2019. I didn't think that, like, everything would completely collapse so quickly. But 2019 was a complete disaster for the league. When you compare it to what came before, in the 2010s—Kobe Bryant died, there was a huge conflict because the general manager of the Houston Rockets tweeted 'freedom for Hong Kong' and the Chinese government, like, forced them to apologize. And then a bunch of people were mad that he had to apologize for saying' freedom for Hong Kong.' And the league got really weird about it, because they have a lot of business interests with the Chinese Communist Party. Then, of course, COVID happens. But even before COVID happens, ratings were down. So there's kind of a kernel of a problem here.

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