Memphis Grizzlies star Ja Morant issued an apology late Tuesday after posting an Instagram Live video last Saturday in which he is shown in a car holding what appears to be a gun.
“I know I’ve disappointed a lot of people who have supported me,” Morant said in the statement. “This is a journey and I recognize there is more work to do. My words may not mean much right now, but I take full accountability for my actions. I’m committed to continuing to work on myself.”
Whether his words prevent the NBA and his sponsors, including Nike, from punishing him remains to be seen.
In March the NBA suspended Morant for eight games after an Instagram Live video showed him holding a firearm at Shotgun Willie’s, a “gentlemen’s club” in Denver.
In relation to the latest gun video, commissioner Adam Silver said the league is investigating “to figure out exactly what happened.” Whether Morant broke any laws is unclear, especially since it’s unknown where the video was recorded. Gun laws vary widely by state and municipality, with a lawful act in one location treated as a crime in another. The legal analysis will factor in whether Morant had a license to carry the gun, and whether the gun was his.
But whether Morant broke any laws is not the relevant test for the NBA or his sponsors. Morant wasn’t charged with a crime in March, but he was suspended for eight games for conduct detrimental to the league.
The NBA has a strict anti-gun policy; players are required to notify teams if they own a gun, and they are forbidden from possessing guns in various circumstances. Even when a player is holding a gun while away from team or league activities, the NBA can still fine and suspend the player if it deems his conduct “prejudicial or detrimental to the Association”—which resulted in Morant’s March suspension.
The NBA could logically reason that a star player perceived as recklessly using a firearm likely damages the league’s relations with fans, including parents of young children, as well as with sponsors and broadcast partners.
The fact that Morant appears to have caused another gun controversy so soon after an eight-game suspension could lead the NBA to conclude an eight-game suspension is too light of a punishment.
Although a very different circumstance, the NBA suspended Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas in 2010 for an indefinite period that ultimately lasted 50 games. Arenas brought guns into an NBA locker room and had an armed showdown with teammate Javaris Crittenton. He was also charged with a crime over the incident and later reached a plea deal.
Morant and the NBPA could appeal a lengthy suspension to a grievance arbitrator. The argument would likely not be that Morant acted properly but instead that, while he erred in judgment, the punishment is excessive and out of line with past practices. The NPBA would have an incentive to appeal to challenge a new precedent being set.
If Morant serves a suspension in the 2023-24 season, it would be expensive. His salary jumps from $12,119,440 to $33,500,000 next season, and under the CBA’s math, a player loses 1/145th of his salary for each missed exhibition, regular-season or playoff game when the suspension is fewer than 20 games. If the suspension is 20 or more games, the player loses 1/110th of their salary for missed exhibition, regular season or playoff games.
Morant’s sponsors, which include Nike, could decide he is too controversial to have an endorser. Most major sponsors require athletes to sign “morals clauses,” which obligate the athlete to behave not just lawfully but also in ways that do not cause damage to the athletes or company’s brand.
For example, in another athlete’s contract, the clause mandates the athlete act “with due regard to public morals, avoid behavior that brings the athlete or company into public disrepute and refrain from offending the community”—with “community” defined by the company and usually in line with customer expectations. Nike could reason that Morant’s reputation won’t help it sell sneakers.