Guesties: David Stern is the NBA

Posted: December 13, 2011 by terryvandrovec in Guesties
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

What is David Stern thinking?

By Rich Jensen
Guest blogger

“They must often have recollected the instability of a happiness which depended on the character of a single man.” – Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Ch. III

During his 27-year tenure as commissioner of the NBA, David Stern has done little to build the NBA as an organization independent of his forceful personality.

The NBA he inherited was weak, and the NBA that he will leave behind is also weak. It is Stern himself that has provided whatever strength the NBA has had during his reign. Along with that strength have come serious lapses of judgment. Two of these lapses have turned the NBA into an unpopular powder keg.


By refusing to directly address race through policy like the NFL’s Rooney Rule, while simultaneously demeaning players by insultingly transparent rules on dress before and after games, Stern has not neutralized the subject of race, he has made it explosive.

Stern habitually acts first to protect and enlarge his power in order to (presumably) exercise it in a manner he considers good for the NBA in general.

The imposition of a dress code on players is a striking example of this. Stern inserted himself into an area of players’ lives that even the NFL has generally left alone, on the pretext that it will make the NBA more fan friendly.

Stern wants NBA player to dress like Michael Scott

This rule, which requires NBA players to dress like Michael Scott from The Office, is an insult to players, fans and the concept of the NBA as an independent organization.

It is first and foremost an insult to players; it implies they’re incapable of judging what constitutes acceptable attire. The noxious racial/cultural undercurrent present in this attitude and Stern’s seeming ignorance of that undercurrent are likewise appalling.

It is also an insult to fans. It strongly suggests that NBA fans were put off by ‘urban’ attire, as opposed to inconsistent officiating, goldbrick players, petulant trade demands and the pointlessly byzantine salary “cap.”

Finally, the passage of this rule discredits the notion that the NBA is anything other than the cat’s paw of David Stern. In the wake of the Ron Artest melee, questions about officiating, the Shaq/Kobe feud and Phil Jackson’s subsequent book, there were no structural changes at the NBA, nor was player conduct on the court brought under any sort of strict oversight. The only change that impacted players significantly was a rule that forces them to play dress-up before and after games.


Because Stern does not grasp the essential causes of fan frustration and has no apparent curiosity about the subject, the past two CBAs have exacerbated fan annoyances instead of ameliorating them. The current CBA, of course, is the old CBA with less money for players.

Under a decentralized NBA, a strong organization with a competent but decidedly less authoritarian leader, there was a greater chance that meaningful change could have been effected under this lockout. As idiotic, unsupportable and ill-advised as the NFL lockout was, it was far better organized than the NBA lockout.

During the lockout, the terms of the debate were never clearly framed by the NBA, and certain sources tell Yahoo! SportsAdrian Wojnarowski that Stern pushed owners for concessions in order to open the season on Christmas, a holiday that Stern has stuffed to the gills with basketball during his tenure.

As a result, the NBA will continue to be a sport where salaries and cap issues are discussed endlessly. In no other sport are salaries and money so much a fixture in daily conversation.

The NBA has given us the sign-and-trade, the extend-and-trade, salary dumps, expiring contracts, the mid-level exception, the biannual exception, Bird rights, the luxury tax and the 140-percent salary rule for trades; thus your typical fan has a far greater working knowledge of his team’s salary than he does for NFL or MLB teams.

Along with that knowledge comes contempt. It is not in the best interests of the NBA for Luke Walton to earn $5 million per year while riding the pines, and it is even worse when thoroughly mercantile trades bring facts like this to the fore repeatedly.

Chris Paul can't believe he was sort of traded - then not - twice this week.

One suspects that Stern, a lawyer who probably hasn’t paid for an NBA ticket since 1966, doesn’t get this.

The failure of this new CBA was amply illustrated by Chris Paul’s refusal to sign an extension in New Orleans. Many owners, observers, and maybe even a few NBA employees understand why fans find this type of conduct offensive.

Some, of course, assert that this irritation has a racial basis. Undoubtedly, it does for a few people. But a greater number of people, black and white, object to the naked exercise of power, period. They object to Chris Paul holding ‘their’ team hostage.

The real world doesn’t work that way. If you’re the best employee in your office, you can’t demand a reassignment to an office in a more glamorous location by threatening to quit if you aren’t reassigned.

In popular terms: The 99 percent object to what the 1 percent are getting away with.

There is also a question of loyalty. Fans who rarely display loyalty toward their employers want players to display loyalty to the teams that employ them.

This is clearly illogical, but then again so is paying someone $16 million a year to play basketball, so there you are.

NBA players participate in an absurd profession, and with that absurd profession come absurd expectations. The good news is that there are other more conventional professions available for those who don’t care for the absurdities that go along with getting rich while bouncing a big orange ball.

Instead of using negotiations to eliminate this extortion while ensuring fair compensation for stars, the owners’ position soon became a thinly disguised attempt to punish the players.

Stern may not have agreed with this, but his entire tenure has been about the acquisition and exercise of control. He has little means with which to control a new class of owners, and if he ever knew how to be persuasive, he seems to have long since lost the ability.


It’s popular to assert that David Stern has stayed too long.

I would argue that Stern should not have been hired in the first place. He took over a weak organization and did not make it stronger. Instead, he took advantage of that weakness to consolidate power in himself.

The short term damage comes from a magnification of his shortcomings. Officiating, for instance, was long neglected because Stern didn’t think it was a problem.

The long-term damage is that the organization is reliant on an increasingly out of touch and autocratic commissioner. One who has lost control of the owners and who has no other means of dealing with them.

Instead of the oft lampooned bureaucracy built by Rozelle and superintended competently by Tagliabue and much less competently by Goodell, Stern’s NBA is in shambles. Four years after the Donaghy scandal, officiating oversight is still worse than in the NFL (which has fewer officials, and those work part time). The current CBA is a disaster. Ownership is incapable of presenting a coordinated message about anything. Race continues to be the 800lb gorilla in the room. It has now become quite popular in some circles to aggressively disclaim interest in the NBA.

And this was before Stern vetoed two Chris Paul trades.

Peter Drucker’s classic Concept of the Corporation clearly explained the need for delegated authority in large organizations. Sadly this lesson seems lost on a man who allegedly threw a fit when pigs in a blanket were not served at an NBA banquet.

About the author: Jensen is just an all-around smart guy, especially when it comes to computers and sports.


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