Throwing cash into the stands

By Kevin Arnovitz

One of the great lessons of adulthood is that almost everything in life comes with a cost.

A couple of weeks ago, two friends and I finishing up dinner at a restaurant in Los Angeles when we noticed that the server charged us for four large beers, though we were certain we'd consumed only three. We politely pointed out the discrepancy, but the waitress claimed -- nicely, but assertively -- that, no, we'd indeed had four. Whether it was the language barrier or the suggestion that we were impugning her honesty (and vice versa), the conversation deteriorated from there. Friend #1 and I weren't willing to leave the additional seven bucks until we'd gone up the chain of command at the restaurant. Friend #2, who'd chosen the place and is a regular there, insisted on paying for the fourth beer. When we finally left the restaurant, Friend #1 and I were incredulous at Friend #2. We'd paid for a beverage we never ordered and didn't drink. But Friend #2 -- a business strategist, natch -- maintained that the associated cost of dragging out the conflict far exceeded the seven bucks. All the awkwardness we were creating in that joint, the very real possibility that the waitress will probably have to cover that seven bucks out of her own pocket, and the fact that the restaurant's owners might remember him as the guy who tried to deke them out of 22 ounces of beer --none of it was worth seven dollars, even if we were right.

When I see an NBA player, coach or owner work himself into a lather that will almost certainly cost him thousands of dollars, I always wonder whether there's a threshold he's unwilling to cross, even if he's certain the call was horrible. For someone like Mark Cuban, I can imagine that line is fairly high for the simple reason that $25,000 isn't all that much money in the grand scheme of things. The same holds true for most superstars with incomes in excess of eight figures.

For some players and coaches, there clearly is a rational calculation. Recently, when asked to comment on whether he was upset that his team was awarded far fewer free throw attempts than the opponent, one NBA coach refused to comment on the situation. "I like my money," he said.

Magic forward Matt Barnes was recently fined $20,000 for throwing the ball into the stands in frustration. Behavioral economist Ian Ayres took note of remarks made by Barnes' coach, Stan Van Gundy, after the game:

Barnes should consider throwing cash into the stands instead of a ball next time.

“That’s basically what he did,” the coach said. “At least if you did that, it’d be the same amount of money, and you’d be very popular. If he threw $20,000 in cash, he’d be very popular.”

Ayres concedes that making it rain in an NBA arena is probably a really bad idea, but Van Gundy's comments got him thinking:

Actually throwing money into the stands might cause a riot. But you could imagine a team keeping some cash on hand at courtside to let players, who were about to commit a finable offense, bypass the NBA middleman and give the fine directly to some designated recipient. Instead of throwing a ball into the stands, Barnes could have ceremonially and publicly deposited cash into a courtside forfeiture drawer — with the money going to charity or to rebate part of the ticket prices.

Publicly forfeiting money is a pretty credible way to signal that you are upset about a blown call. It is not cheap talk. Forfeiting money to fans or a charity that players like makes the talk a bit cheaper because players might get some value from making such a donation.

What makes Ayres' idea appealing is that NBA players still get to exact a public display of protest by stuffing money into the forfeiture drawer. (You can even imagine a corporate sponsor participating in the "Bank of America Forfeiture Drawer Deposit" between quarters).

"It's the principle" is a huge motivating factor for human beings. Beyond sheer frustration, "it's the principle" is why a lot of NBA players vehemently -- and even profanely -- protest calls (and it's why I won't pay for valet parking). Figuring out rational and charitable ways to quantify those principles is always a good idea.

Ayres recognizes that the current collective bargaining agreement already spells out what happens when a player gets fined: The NBA and National Basketball Players Association equally split fines paid by players, then donate the respective shares to the charities of their choice. Ayres also wonders if players would be more likely to complain about calls and get their money's worth if they knew their fine was going to a more worthy cause.