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With half step on Jordan brand, NBA sends mixed message

The NBA definitely wants Michael Jordan to remain a part of its active family. But afraid of looking like things are too cozy, it is now dictating how he can run one of his other business interests.

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Handout/Getty Images

The NBA clearly wants to be in the Michael Jordan business, and they're certainly not alone in that regard. As is apparent by sales numbers and the current roster of Jordan Brand athletes, today's players, as well as the future of the NBA, do as well.

Which is why news that the NBA is limiting Jordan's ability to conduct his business away from the NBA was a little weak if not a bit bothersome. Darren Rovell of ESPN reported the NBA has told Jordan he will not be allowed to select the players who endorse the Jordan Brand, which, you know, is kind of his thing.

On its website, The Jordan Brand (a subsidiary of Nike) introduces the JB family specifically as being "handpicked by MJ to carry the torch."

The NBA already has rules in place to prevent teams from circumventing the salary cap and adding income from third parties to entice players to sign. Those rules make sense and should exist. That's why the Clippers were fined for breaking those rules in the midst of negotiations with DeAndre Jordan.

But Michael Jordan and the Hornets have never been accused of breaking any such rule. The appearance of impropriety in that area has never even been mentioned and yet the league feels it necessary to dictate what Jordan can and can't do in the course of being an integral part of the business making decisions within the sports marketing empire he helped create. (Now just because it hasn't happened doesn't mean it couldn't, but still.)

This is an empire that was built on his image. It's an image that is in the very DNA of the brand and an image that the NBA is rumored to have no problem slapping on some of its jerseys after this season when Nike takes over the outfitting rights of the league.

The concern is understandable and to be fair there is no precedent for any case like this in the history of American professional sports. Never has the best and most popular player the game has ever seen reached such dizzying highs, ascending  from top player to majority owner of a team. So these are uncharted waters for everyone.

NBA ownership is essentially a club. You have to be granted entrance, can be kicked out of the club, and as you enter, you agree to certain concessions handed down by the governing body or the rest of your owners.  So it's not exactly an inhabitance of free reign. And of course once you're in, that doesn't grant you immunity in perpetuity.

However one would assume those involved at the ownership level, as well as members of the governing body can realize, if not quantify, how much the product, and thus their interest (business and otherwise) benefits from having Michael Jordan involved with the league.

That is why this half step of trying to limit what role Jordan can play in his own business that operates outside of league scope seems so disingenuous. If you want to truly limit the potential unfair benefits of this entangled relationship, tell him he has to choose. You can run a team or run a company that vies to outfit teams and its players, but not both. And it could have done that.

The league could have told Jordan that as soon as he made his first efforts to broker a deal with former Charlotte Hornets owner George Shinn.  But it didn't. It could have told him that when he reached an agreement with the Washington Wizards in their front office. But it didn't. (He was forced to sell his stake in the franchise when he returned to play.) It could have told him that when he made his second attempt at ownership control in Charlotte and was successful, or when he agreed to become majority owner, but it didn't.

Was the league somehow oblivious of his involvement with Nike and Jordan Brand? Had leaders not seen the commercials? Of course they had. But they likely (obviously) figured having Jordan involved with the game was worth whatever side glances would come with seeing players occasionally wear his sneakers on the court.

Maybe they didn't think it was that big a deal. Jordan Brand hasn't always been the oncourt player it is today touting superstars like Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Carmelo Anthony and Russell Westbrook. But it is now. Jordan Brand and Nike dominate the basketball shoe market that is, interestingly enough, starting to heat up again.

James Harden just left Nike for $200 Million from adidas because he's not an idiot. Under Armour has never been shy about taking shots at the crown and is armed more than ever to do so with league MVP Stephen Curry under its banner.

But even if Jordan Brand wasn't a goliath, or even if it wasn't Jordan Brand and this wasn't Michael Jordan, certainly there is enough foresight to see how there could be a conflict of interest between someone owning an NBA team and being intricately involved with an athletic apparel, shoe and marketing company.

Of course there was. They just didn't care. They wanted to be back in the business of Michael Jordan.

Could Jordan Brand come back and have a legitimate argument that taking the "handpicked" by Jordan moniker off its athletes makes it vulnerable to competitors? Sure. Why not? It's what the brand is built upon. It could argue MJ selecting players, that badge of honor, is one of the main reasons athletes choose JB.

In reality, Nike and Jordan Brand have and work with enough talented and smart people to creatively work around this sticking point, and retain the image of athletes being "selected" by Jordan. After all it is likely not Jordan alone at every level who is making these decisions, so turning that over to a team of experts (or even current Jordan Brand athletes) who select athletes based on specific character traits and love of the game exhibited by the greatest player of all time (you can have that one, Jordan Brand) wouldn't be that difficult. And listen, guys are still going to want to play for Jordan Brand. Players are still going to want what comes with wearing that Jumpman logo.

That's why this feels more like window dressing than anything close to throwing down the hammer.

The NBA had the chance, several actually, to make this a moot point and did not. The Jordan Brand, Michael Jordan's image and his role in it, have always been there. That image was at one time bigger than the entire league for crying out loud. As a result, coming back now with a half-hearted attempt to show it is doing the right thing looks like the league is scrambling to cover itself and claim there isn't a conflict of interest. There quite clearly is, but it doesn't have to be the end of the relationship.

The NBA has singled out one of its owners and required him to do something, or more accurately told him NOT to do something. Something it doesn't require any other owner in a similar leadership position outside of the NBA to do. And that's not fair.