From 1974 until 2016, American basketball fans were able to vote for the starting lineup of the NBA’s All-Star game, so that the players in this exhibition game were actually the most popular players in the league, as determined by fan votes.
Last month, however, the NBA announced that the fan vote would be discounted by 50%, and the other 50% of the vote would be made up of
superdelegates current players and select members of the basketball media. Fans were disenfranchised in this way because last year, they screwed up the vote by almost putting Zaza Pachulia in the All-Star Game.
I don’t watch basketball and I have nothing against Zaza Pachulia, but the perplexed reaction of sports commentators tells me that he does not merit inclusion in the game. He is not one of the league’s best or most popular players. He will not draw the interest of fans who will spend money to buy tickets to the NBA’s All-Star Weekend. The only reason Pachulia is punching above his weight in the NBA vote totals is that a sizeable number (but probably not a large percentage*) of Georgians – most of whom live in Georgia and many of whom do not even watch NBA games – are voting for him because they think it would be cool to have a Georgian in the All-Star Game.
So it is literally true that the NBA had to change its voting rules to disenfranchise fans because some Georgians disrupted the integrity of the process to inflate their own national egos. And this year, they are doing it again.
Again, I don’t watch basketball, and the integrity of the NBA All-Star team vote is not particularly important to me per se. However, I think it is interesting that Georgians seem to be completely oblivious to the ethical dimension of this situation. Georgians are very proudly, publicly promoting Pachulia on social media and on the online English-language Georgian propaganda mill Agenda.ge. I think they wouldn’t do this if they understood that many would consider this behavior to be unethical, boorish, and narcissistic.
I think the Agenda.ge article on Pachulia demonstrates this obliviousness well. Agenda points out that the voting rules change will make it much harder for Pachulia to make the All-Star team, but not that the voting rules change was specifically done to prevent Pachulia from making the All-Star team. The article also implies that Pachulia was good enough to have belonged on the All-Star team last year, seemingly oblivious to the fact that no one who is not Georgian seems to believe that and the NBA disbelieved it so hard that they changed the voting system to stop Pachulia from getting on the All-Star team this year.
I think this is obvious to most Americans, but let me just lay out the ethical argument, briefly. It is unethical to participate in a fan vote if you are not a fan. Even if you are a fan, it is unethical to vote for a player with no particular star quality to join the All-Star team. There is an implicit understanding that non-fans should not vote, and fans should vote for the best players according to their honest judgment. For a large group of outsiders to come in and disrupt this understanding is not fair to fans who vote in good faith, or to players who deserve to have their genuine achievements recognized appropriately (and the NBA recognizes that, which is why they have changed the voting rules).
I come from the most populous city in the United States – New York City – and we have two basketball teams which, from what I understand, are mediocre. If New Yorkers acted like Georgians, the entire Eastern Conference All-Star team would presumably consist entirely of players from these two mediocre teams, and would itself be mediocre, and would play a mediocre All-Star game. This is a consequence that no one wants, and so very few people are willing to deliberately vote for a mediocre All-Star lineup because of local or regional prejudice.
But New Yorkers do not act like Georgians with respect to the NBA vote. Those of us who do not care about or watch basketball do not vote in fan votes. Those of us who do care do not blindly vote for members of our tribe, but instead vote for the best players, so that the conference can form the best team and the league can stage the best exhibition game. Through this process, fans are rewarded for investing their time and energy into the NBA by seeing their favorite stars in the league play an excellent game.
I’m sure that many Georgians truly believe that Pachulia deserves a spot on the All-Star team. However, I think they believe this because of cultural narcissism and chauvinism, not because Pachulia is a star. If Pachulia were not Georgian there is simply no way Georgians would flood the NBA vote with Pachulia votes. But Georgians have a tendency to uncritically favor Georgian things and Georgian people (cf. Stalin) to a much greater extent than any other nationality I’ve ever encountered.
But I think that even recognizing that, many Georgians would still say that they are justified in voting Pachulia even though he has not earned the spot through merit. There are still too many Georgians who smoke in parks in front of children, who park on sidewalks, who compulsively cut in line, who litter on public roads and in public building entrances, and who have generally not developed a sense of personal responsibility to the community – who will be very nice to you one-on-one, but will act with complete disregard for the interests of other people in the abstract. None of those people care in the slightest what is fair to NBA fans in America – all they care about is what they can get away with.
And hey – this has gotten a ton of free press for Georgia. It’s in the New York Times. For narcissists, any attention is good attention. From their perspective, there’s really no reason not to just do this every year.
*I don’t want to imply that all Georgians, or even most Georgians, are cultural narcissists. Really, we’re talking about a small, vocal minority – a group which is probably in the single-digits, percentage-wise. Pachulia got about 440,000 votes in a week, which means it could be as few as 63,000 voters voting for him every day, which is less than 2% of Georgia’s population. Also, because of how the NBA counts twitter votes, he also has some unknown number of votes that come from people inadvertently voting for him – for instance, if I complained on twitter “Zaza Pachulia does not belong in the All-Star Game #NBAVote” that would be counted as a vote for Pachulia by the NBA’s twitter-scraping algorithm. Retweets are also counted as votes, so, for example, this prankster managed to rustle up at least 148 votes for Pachulia, some unknown number of which may have actually thought they were opposing Pachulia.
So presumably many people are innocently retweeting Zaza Pachulia votes without realizing that they are voting or really thinking much about it at all. But there wouldn’t be so many Pachulia votes to retweet if the small-but-devoted group of Pachulia-partisans hadn’t started the whole thing in the first place. So despite the innocence of perhaps 99% of Georgians, it is still the case that a group of Georgians has effectively subverted the NBA All-Star vote, twice, and thus ruined it for everybody else.