This year’s NBA playoffs were an unexpected boost for me. As the Denver Nuggets steamrolled to their first championship in franchise history, it was a sudden resurrection of my childhood obsession with basketball, with the additional bonus of it being a bonding fan experience with my kids and friends. One of the people who made it so special was Nuggets guard Bruce Brown — who right now faces a complicated life choice inside a parable about the larger American economy.
First, a little bit about this player that I love: Brown is the NBA version of a best supporting actor in a great movie. He’s that hyperenthusiastic, multitalented off-the-bench force just below the superstar level who turns good squads into champions. He’s one of the few Vinnie Johnsons of his era — the type of player embodying the real teamness of the best version of a sport whose professional league too often promotes an annoying one-on-five, MVP-savior vibe.
So after the Nuggets won the finals, my kids and friends and I were high-fiving when we read the news that Brown wants to stay in Denver for another season, even if the NBA salary cap would mean such a decision would require him to accept less financial remuneration than he could get as a free agent on the open market.
“I want to stay,” he told The Denver Post. “It’s a perfect fit. And money is not everything. The money will come. So I’m not worried about that right now.”
Today, though, that prospect seemed to dim — The Athletic reports that Brown is declining to exercise his existing contract’s option to renew his deal with the Nuggets. He could still eventually come back to the Nuggets, but he’s going to test out the open market.
As a fan, I’m bummed. I want to know Brown will continue to be part of Denver’s ethos, and part of a Nuggets team that exudes the kind of old-school solidarity that is so rare in American life writ large.
But I also think he’s making a rational — and moral — decision.
This is a society with almost no social safety net or guarantee of economic stability — a society that tells us every single day in so many ways that if you don’t seize all that you can when you have the chance, you risk missing out and facing everything from foreclosure to medical bankruptcy to retirement poverty. For professional athletes, their window of financial opportunity can be especially fleeting. One injury without a guaranteed multiyear contract can slam shut that window forever. Many end up broke within just a few years of retirement.
Brown is a valuable worker in an industry that made $1.4 billion on sponsorship deals alone last year. Like every other worker in that industry, he has a right to ask for as much of a share of that as he can negotiate for. He owes no economic loyalty to the billionaire owner of the Nuggets (or any other team), and even if he could make more money later in Denver, taking a one-year Nuggets contract in lieu of guaranteed multi-year money is a huge risk in an economy that refuses to derisk people’s access to the basic necessities of life.
Of course, if Brown wants to take that risk or accept less money because he gets more job satisfaction out of his current situation, that’s also his right (and one more easy to economically navigate because it's a choice between different seven-figure salaries). It’s one of those money/job-satisfaction tradeoff choices that lots of people face throughout their lives — and everyone comes up with their own ways to make those calls.
Even for pro athletes negotiating multimillion-dollar contracts, these decisions are fraught in a country that has made myriad policy choices normalizing a culture of economic precarity — a culture that constantly lets us know we are all one illness, car accident or natural disaster away from bankruptcy.
It’s easier to choose job satisfaction over maximized remuneration if you know there’s a safety net in place guaranteeing that no matter what happens, you and your family will always have access to medical care, food, housing, education, and retirement. But that’s not the society we’ve chosen to create.
As a selfish Denver fan and as a dad who has loved bonding with my kids over Bruce’s threes and dunks and steals, I hope he stays. But if he goes, I can’t begrudge it. In a dystopian economy, workers need to jealously protect their own economic self-interest, because nobody else will.