NBA Fines 101

Plus: How the NBA may have fined Kobe Bryant more than is technically permissible.

Kobe Bryant’s $100,000 fine by the NBA may be unconstitutional

NBA commissioner David Stern slapped Kobe Bryant with a $100,000 fine on Wednesday, after the Los Angeles Lakers star directed a homophobic slur at a referee. In December, the NBA zinged Andre Miller of the Portland Trail Blazers with a $25,000 charge for throwing the ball into the stands at the end of a game. And last October, the league fined Miller’s teammate Rudy Fernandez $50,000 for asking publicly to be traded or released. It would seem that one slur = asking to be traded + (2 x throwing a basketball into the stands). How does the NBA determine the price of player misconduct?

Largely at the commissioner’s discretion. Petty offenses are penalized at set rates; a vanilla technical foul, for instance, will set you back $500. After a high-profile or irregular offense, NBA executives discuss the circumstances, the player’s (or coach’s or team management’s) history of conduct, and how the league has penalized similar offenses in the past. They’ll typically also give the player the opportunity to defend his actions. But in the end, it’s basically up to the commissioner to decide how large a fine or suspension to issue. In fact, of the commissioners for the four major U.S. sports leagues, David Stern arguably has the greatest latitude in regulating player conduct.

Given that Bryant has racked up the second-most number of technical fouls this season, and that his slur drew the ire of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, his sizeable fine is not a surprise. In terms of precedent, the league probably looked at the $50,000 penalty it charged Dennis Rodman for saying, “It’s difficult to get in sync because of all the [expletive] Mormons out here,” after his Chicago Bulls lost to the Utah Jazz in a 1997 championship finals game. Accounting for inflation, that’s nearly $70,000 in today’s dollars.

Nonetheless, the league may have overstepped its bounds by charging Bryant $100,000. Article 35(c) of the NBA Constitution (PDF) gives the commissioner broad discretion to fine players whose “act or conduct […] has been prejudicial to or against the best interests of the Association or the game of basketball,” but also states that fines will “not exceed $50,000.” Bryant is the first player the league has ever fined directly—as opposed to indirectly through suspension—for more than this stated maximum. It wasn’t immediately clear why, or how, the NBA bypassed the provision, a league spokesperson told the Explainer. Bryant has said he plans to appeal the fine, as a matter of “standard protocol.” If he’s aware of the possible overfining, he hasn’t made a big deal of it.

The $50,000 threshold doesn’t apply to teams, coaches, or management. On Thursday, the league  fined  Lakers coach Phil Jackson, a coach with a long history of NBA fines, and the team itself $75,000 each after Jackson spoke to reporters about ongoing collective-bargaining negotiations. Dallas Mavericks owner * Mark Cuban holds the record for largest public fine against an individual: $500,000 in 2002 for repeatedly criticizing the league’s officiating. The league issued its largest group fine in 2000, when it penalized the Minnesota Timberwolves $3.5 million (in addition to five first-round draft picks, two of which the team eventually got back) for making an under-the-table deal with forward Joe Smith.

Fines aren’t the commissioner’s only tool for punishment. Suspensions cost players far more in lost wages, with each day off the court amounting to 1/110 of the player’s annual salary. (Until the 2005 collective-bargaining agreement lowered it, the rate was 1/90 of the player’s salary, based on an eight-game preseason and an 82-game regular season.) Ron Artest forfeited nearly $5 million while serving an 86-game suspension (the remainder of the 2004-05 season, including playoffs) for his role in “Malice at the Palace,” a mega-brawl among players and fans at an Indiana Pacers-Detroit Pistons match.

Bonus Explainer: Where does all that money go? The league and the players association split all fines 50-50, and then give it to charity or “charitable endeavors,” including league-run initiatives like the Read to Achieve program.

Bonus Bonus Explainer: Can players claim a tax deduction for their fines? No, but Lamar Odom disagrees. In October, the Lakers forward sued the IRS for not letting him write off $12,000 in fines on his 2007 taxes. The fines, Odom’s petition argues, were an “ordinary and necessary employee business expense.”

Got a question about today’s news?  Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Tim Frank of the National Basketball Association.

Correction, April 15, 2011: An earlier version of this article mistakenly called Mark Cuban the coach of the Dallas Mavericks. Cuban is the owner. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)