The NBA, perhaps more than any sport on the planet, allows players to express themselves through tattoos. With uniforms comprised of little more than tank tops and shorts, the athletes’ bodies are constantly viewed by fans.
Many take this as an opportunity to showcase their latest ink. While the NBA may seem unconcerned about tattoos, they are quite strict in some regards concerning what players can show on the court.
The NBA’s tattoo rules
NBA fans have been subjected to some truly bizarre tattoos over the years. From the Willie Nelson image on Montrezl Harrell’s calf to emojis adorning Mike Scott’s body, tattoos tell a story. But sometimes it’s a story not sanctioned by the league.
Specifically, the players are not allowed to display brand names that are not associated with the NBA, as stated by the rules: “… A player may not, during any NBA game, display any commercial, promotional, or charitable name, mark, logo or other identification, including, but not limited to, on his body, in his hair, or otherwise.”
According to the New York Daily News, the rule does not specifically mention tattoos, but the intent is clear. The NBA gets billions of dollars from advertising partners, who they don’t want to offend when those who do not pay get free ad space. This often flew under the radar, but then J.R. Smith and Lonzo Ball debuted new tattoos.
Free advertising via tattoos
In August 2018, then-Cavalier J.R. Smith posted a picture of his latest tattoo, the logo for streetwear brand Supreme. Smith, whose entire body is adorned with tattoos, caused a stir with the image. Some loved his decision while others loathed it.
The league, however, was not a fan, and a war broke out over Smith’s new ink. The NBA responded to Smith by telling him that if he didn’t cover up the tattoo during games, they would fine him every time he played.
This is not a new threat to the NBA as tides shift. When Michael Jordan first signed his shoe deal with Nike, the league famously fined him for wearing shoes not sanctioned by the NBA. Nike paid the fine, and billions of dollars later it seems to have been a good investment.
Smith saw the response as targeted and took to Instagram to vent his frustrations: “I swear I’m the only person they do shit like this to! So you mean to tell me i [sic] have to cover up my tattoo for what? You don’t make people cover up Jordan logos NIKE checks or anything else but because it’s me it’s a problem all of a sudden!!! S*** whack.”
When people pointed out that other players had sported brand name tattoos, the league responded by cracking down on them, too. Nike logos and other companies were exempt, as they were the official sponsor of the uniforms.
Lonzo Ball’s ill-fated Big Baller Brand, however, was not exempt. The league threatened him with similar fines. Ball and Smith weren’t alone despite being the only two called out. Film logos, other brands, and even TV shows adorn the bodies of NBA players everywhere, yet they seem to have no issues with the NBA.
A double-standard for NBA players
There is some warrant to the league’s tattoo policy. The NBA may own the rights to a player’s on-court performances, but they do not own their personal lives.
If players want tattoos of brands, many believe it should be their right to have them without the league interfering in the matter. By selectively fining people for these tattoos, the NBA opens itself up for further criticism and allegations of targeted enforcement.