Commissioner Control? Morant Faces Legal and League Investigations
 (Photo Credit)
Ja Morant is a 23-year-old Memphis Grizzlies all-star and the 2020 rookie of the year. Off the court, he is currently facing two investigations, one from Colorado police and the other from National Basketball Association (NBA). The investigations stem from an incident where Morant flashed what appeared to be a firearm while recording an Instagram Live stream on his account on March 4th, 2023, following the Grizzlies’ loss to the Denver Nuggets.
After the game, Morant was out late in Glendale, Colorado, a Denver suburb known for its risqué clubs and shopping centers, when he began the Live stream. Morant had recently been the center of multiple other controversies for reported incidents of violence or threats of violence in recent weeks. First, last summer accusations arose of a circumstance where Morant threatened a security guard at a Memphis mall, making alarming comments while his acquaintance shoved the man. Soon after followed reports of another situation where Morant punched a 17-year-old male following a pickup basketball game over the summer while flashing a weapon.
And to add insult to injury, another incident was reported where members of his group aggressively confronted members of the Indiana Pacers staff following a January 29th game between the Grizzlies and Pacers. Now, he is serving a 2-game suspension for the Colorado incident while the matter is investigated further by the league, with the likelihood of a longer punishment growing by the day.
Colorado Police Investigation
In general, it is lawful in Colorado for an adult to carry a licensed firearm. The state is considered an “open carry” jurisdiction, which means an adult doesn’t need a permit to carry a gun in plain sight, including in restaurants and bars that do not post signage prohibiting open carry. However, the Colorado Revised Statutes provide that a person in possession of any firearm while under the influence of drugs or alcohol commits a class two misdemeanor which can be punishable by up to 120 days in jail.
Although Morant was clearly located in a nightclub late into the evening during the video, he was not displayed drinking or consuming any illegal substances. Even though one may logically assume alcohol consumption comes with the territory, it will be difficult to prove Morant was under the influence with no concrete evidence. As part of the investigation, the Glendale Police Department may be able to obtain other available footage from nearby person’s phones on security cameras at Shotgun Wille’s, the establishment Morant chose to spend his evening in.
Additionally, the police could potentially even ascertain if Morant purchased any alcohol if he had any credit card transactions that evening. However, it is likely that even these efforts would not establish for certain that Morant himself consumed any alcoholic beverages he purchased and would likely be very difficult for the police to prove in court.
Although the Glendale police investigation likely faces many dead ends, the NBA is conducting an investigation of its own regarding Morant’s actions that night. The NBA has a long history of dealing with player image issues – recall the struggles between the league and players like Allen Iverson and Gilbert Arenas in the early 2000s. As a result, the NBA created rules within its Collective Bargaining Agreement (“CBA”) to promote player responsibility. Under Section 9, Article VI of the CBA, players are prohibited from possessing a firearm “of any kind” in numerous settings, including “whenever a player is traveling on any NBA-related business, whether on behalf of the player’s team, the NBA or any League-related entity.”
Although Morant wasn’t partaking in a team-related activity while at Shotgun Willie’s, he was in Glendale as part of his team’s road trip, and therefore subject to team rules about personal conduct. Further, should he be found to own or possess a firearm, Morant also has a duty under the same CBA provision to provide the Grizzlies with proof that he has a proper license and registration for the firearm.
It is now left to the discretion of NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, a notoriously player-friendly executive, to decide if Morant violated either firearm rule in the CBA, or if Morant otherwise engaged in “conduct prejudicial or detrimental to the Association.” Silver can suspend Morant for an indefinite period and subject him to fines as well. Additionally, if it can be proved that Morant possessed the gun on the team’s premises or the team plane, the CBA imposes an automatic 50-game suspension. Losing Morant for a significant amount of time would likely crush the Grizzlies championship aspirations this season and bring forth serious questions regarding the future of their franchise.
Although wielding a gun while live on Instagram in a club under no known use of drugs or alcohol may turn out to be legal under Colorado law, given Morant’s high profile, the NBA could still deem the activity damaging to the league’s brand and harmful to relationships with fans, sponsors, and broadcast partners.  This brings forth an important conversation regarding player imagery; an issue the NBA has struggled with for years. Although it may be perfectly legal for players to go out late in the night after games and engage in adult activities, issues are more likely to arise when those actions reflect poorly on a certain team or the league as a whole.
Additionally, it is true that star players nowadays tend to receive more leniency when it comes to controversial behavior. The late David Stern, Silver’s predecessor, was notoriously hard on players who were thought to be bringing negative attention to the league. In fact, he suspended Gilbert Arenas for 50 games for bringing a gun into the Wizard’s locker room in 2010 and threatened to take $80 million away if he chose to appeal.
However, as the League has trended towards a more player-controlled nature, it seems that players with more notoriety tend to not face as harsh of consequences as years past. The two-game suspension Morant initially received came from the Grizzlies, not even the league itself.
Additionally, although suspending Morant may be the right move from an ethical standpoint, the NBA playoffs may also lose some local and national fan viewership without his high-flying presence on the court. In other words, it is in the NBA’s interest to have Morant out there, which may impact the eventual length of his suspension.
Morant has apologized for his actions and stated he needs to take some time away from the game to seek help. While his actions deserve critique, it is also important to remember that Morant is only 23 years old. Being thrust into the spotlight and such a young age is part of the territory that comes with playing in the NBA, and expecting a young adult to fully know how to navigate the world at such a ripe age is unrealistic. In addition to becoming more responsible for his own actions, the people surrounding Morant should also be looking out for his interests and ensuring that he is not in situations that could compromise his image.
This situation could also be seen as a turning point in how the NBA is run, depending on the consequences ahead for Morant. Silver has been touted as the most player friendly commissioner in all of sports. However, it seems as though this has led to an absence of fear in players of consequences for unruly behavior. Hopefully, Silver will take this as an opportunity to reestablish league values and regain some control in the interest of the league’s reputation and profitability.
Update – March 15th, 2023 - NBA Announcement
On Wednesday, March 15th, the NBA announced Morant will serve an eight-game suspension without pay for conduct “detrimental to the league.” After checking himself into a week-long mental health rehabilitation program, Morant met with Commissioner Silver in New York and received his official punishment.
In its announcement, the league stated that based on the information learned during the investigation, it could not conclude that the gun belonged to Morant, was brought to the club by him, nor was displayed by him beyond a brief period. The investigation also did not reveal that Morant possessed the gun while traveling with the team or in any NBA facility, therefore not triggering the automatic 50-game suspension as provided by the CBA. 
The suspension covers the six games he’ll miss after serving his original 2-game suspension – March 9th vs. Golden State, March 11th & 13th vs. Dallas, March 15th vs. Miami, March 17th vs. San Antonio, and March 18th vs. Golden State again. Morant will next be eligible to play in the Grizzlies' Monday night game against the Mavericks, with the Western Conference playoff seeding race reaching its peak.
After analyzing the breakdown of the games Morant will miss, noting that he will only miss three additional games to what he has already missed, it appears the punishment may not truly fit the crime. Although it is promising the league gave out a suspension, it is not nearly enough, and they should hope this suspension is enough to deter other players from behaving this way or else they will continue to be walked on by the players.
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