The Myth of David Stern

One point that has driven me crazy for several years now is the complete free pass that David Stern, the NBA commissioner, gets from the media. In fact, Stern is usually lauded by the media as the most competent of sports commissioners. It makes me batty; I just don’t understand why people can’t see that this just isn’t the case.

Stern became NBA commissioner in 1984, a year that just so happened to coincide with the entrance of Michael Jordan into the league. Not only was Stern gift wrapped Jordan, but other, hugely marketable, top 15 players of all time like Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Isaiah Thomas, and Karl Malone were also either in the league or shortly to join. With all of these huge, fan-friendly players, how hard was it really to grow the league? In fact, can anyone point to one thing that Stern did in that period that was particularly innovative or somehow caused more growth than the presence of players like Jordan and Johnson wouldn’t have caused on their own? I’m pretty sure most dopers could have successfully led the league during the 80’s-early 90’s.

Since Michael Jordan’s retirement, the NBA has pretty much been in a free fall in terms of popularity. Its TV ratings are terrible, the officiating is a joke, the level of play as well as the watchability of games has declined, its salary structure prevents the building of good teams, and bad teams tank egregiously for draft picks. When Bill Simmons, one of the biggest NBA fans in the media, spends most of his time writing articles like this, you know the league is in bad shape.

What has Stern done in response to any of this? Go out to the media and steadfastly insist that nothing is wrong. Jus as he did today in response to the reffing scandal. This despite the fact that owners like Mark Cuban have been howling for significant changes to the NBA, the refereeing in particular. Meanwhile, the initiatives he has spearheaded, like marketing to Asia, have had little effect on the overall quality of the game.

My own personal take is the reason that Stern gets such a pass, and is portrayed as such a great commissioner, is his rapport with the media. I won’t deny that Stern seems like a genuinely cool guy; and there is no question that he gives an entertaining interview. In today’s world of sports journalism where people are portrayed by the media in a good or bad light largely by how much they play ball with it, its no surprise that Stern is always talked about in such positive terms.

I think that my overall argument is strengthened by the complete opposite way that Bud Selig is generally portrayed by the media. Selig is almost universally viewed as a buffoon who has fiddled while Rome burned. This view is in spite of the fact that in Selig’s tenure franchise values have gone through the roof. Almost every team has built a new stadium. Average attendance is at its highest level ever. Baseball has its highest level of parity ever with a revenue sharing formula that seems to strike a very good balance between a high level of play and competitive balance. (I don’t doubt someone will take issue with this point, and I will be glad to argue my point of view.) Selig also was able to wisely realign baseball and reformat the playoffs in a way that has gotten more teams involved and increased fan excitement. In short, baseball is stronger than it’s ever been. Yet Selig gets killed.

I will admit that baseball has had its issues, namely the strike of '94 and the steroids scandal. I don’t think it’s fair to entirely lie either of these issues at Selig’s feet. Baseball has the most powerful, hardheaded, and self-interested union and union leadership in all of professional sports, if not all of organized labor. Look no further than Ferh’s disgraceful testimony before congress a few years ago and the union’s unwillingness to act on steroids until universal public outrage made their position impossible. Given that baseball had never been able to avoid a work stoppage from 80 through 94, Selig deserves major props for not only getting a new deal done in 2002, but receiving major concessions on revenue sharing from the union. Anyone who thinks that this would have been possible had he been pushing the steroid issue at that time has not paid attention to the unions tactics and stances pre 2006. It’s impossible to judge Selig without taking into account baseball’s union.

I will fault Selig in that I think that he tends to favor certain franchises/owners like the White Sox/Reindorf or the Red Sox/Henry who are made up of “his guys” at the expense of others like the Yankees/Steinbrenner. (See for example how Selig jumped through hoops to make Arod to the Red Sox happen, but noted his disproval of Arod to the Yankees and said he would never allow a deal like it again.)

It’s also worth noting that Selig has done all this with much less power than commissioners in other spots, and Stern in particular. Where MLB’s union is powerful and truculent, the NBA’s is weak and essentially rolled over after the last work stoppage. With the exception of Cuban, the NBA’s owners are much more compliant with the commissioner, generally allowing him to set league policy; while in the MLB owners like Steinbrenner, Illitch with the Tigers, Artie Moreno with the Angles, etc. have essentially ignored Selig’s wishes when it came to things like the WBC or paying signing bonuses to draft picks.

So, despite all of Selig’s accomplishments, he gets killed. I think it’s because Selig is an awkward guy who hasn’t shied away from frankly discussing baseball’s problems and taking sometimes unpopular actions to remedy them. He has little to no charisma and doesn’t actively court the media, preferring to work behind the scenes by building consensus. In short, he doesn’t appeal to the media like Stern does and they don’t give him the free pass like they do Stern.

The NBA has always shielded the refs from any criticism. Players know when there are bs calls. His shield has led somewhat to the mess now. If I were an NBA player I would ask for my fine money back.
I think his allowing protection for who is seen as a super star is unfair. Calls should have nothing to do with who makes the play.
It is fundamentally dishonest to have separate rules for players.

I have nothing more to add other than I agree completely with the OP. I hope this games-fixing shitbomb blows up all over David Stern.

From the way EVERYONE in the media deifies Stern, I honestly thought I might be the only one who felt this way. Maybe I am sane after all… :slight_smile:

There was a time when

I agree with the OP- the current on court play in the NBA is ten times worse than it was it its supposed nadir in the 70’s. When an average score is 72-64 with 40 percent shooting, I don’t see how anyone can watch a regular season game.

The hell? Thank God for notepad.


There was a time when Stern was the god of commissioners. He was credited, rightly or wrongly, with making the NBA into a legitimate third pro sport on a level with the NFL and MLB. He oversaw expansion with Charlotte, Miami, Orlando, and Minnesota in the early 80s — three of which were insanely successful. He conceived and promoted the NBA all-star activities, including the slam dunk contest and all the fun that came with that (before it got boring). And he was instrumental in forming the Dream Team for the olympics, which awed teams from everywhere. It didn’t hurt that he had Magic, Bird, Jordan, and other icons of the game to market.

Then, shit happened and here we are. :smiley:

I think that pretty much summarizes the OP’s point, though, which is that Stern got lucky. He happened to have Michael Jordan, the most popular American athlete since Babe Ruth, fall into his lap, plus several other absolutely A-list, marketable stars really pushed the NBA along. I’d also argue that the addition of the 3-point line is an absolutely critical factor in the NBA being as good a game as it is - it would be an absolute shit game without it - and that wasn’t Stern’s doing either. He was just in the right place at the right time. His major accomplishment, really, was the slam dunk contest, and that was just borrowed from the ABA.

The comparison with Selig is apt. Even I hate ol’ Skeletor, but you have to admit, at least he doesn’t have umpires throwing games.

BTW, between Miami, Minnesota, Orlando, and Charlotte, which 3 have been insanely successful? Miami I’ll give you, but Charlotte moved and Orlando’s talked about moving. The Timberwolves have done okay, I guess. You forgot Toronto, which HAS been insanely successful, but also neglected to mention the Grizzlies, who were a total failure in Vancouver and aren’t doing very well in Memphis, either. Those were later, but have to go into his record.

There are sportswriters now openly claiming that the NBA deliberately uses its worst refs in playoff games where they want the home team to win, the theory being that bad refs are more swayed by the crowd’s reactions. I haven’t seen it supported with a lot of statistical evidence, but it’s indicative of a loss of confidence in the sport’s legitimacy. Legitimacy - the perception that the outcome of the sport has some intrinsic importance - is critical to the health of a pro sport, and the perception of game fixing directly harms that.

Stern allowed this ref to officiate games, even playoff games, when he knew the ref was under investigation., He’s got a mammoth problem here and has allowed it to possibly grow to critical levels without doing anything.

I meant insanely successful on launch. The Charlotte Hornets moved eventually, but at the time they were absolutely critical to the city’s growing self-esteem. They broke league attendance records for the first three years. Miami and Orlando were likewise the darlings of their towns. Minnesota really took the longest to catch on with their local people and was the worst of the newcomers.

Yeah, I didn’t forget them. I just wasn’t writing a novel. :smiley:

Hell, I’d be happy if the basic rules were enforced. It’s easy for Kobe and Wade to do what they do, once they’re within a certain range of the basket they can simply carry the ball without having to worry about that whole dribbling chore.

I hate basketball. Entertaining OP- although I take exception to these:

Well, he is, and has.

I have been away from the game for a bit. Unfortunately, the striking BS all started when I turned 16, so the game was already competing against hormones…and losing. Perhaps someone who has hung in there can elaborate a bit more. The fact that he owns a team, and is the commissioner is just ridiculous.

I don’t like this either. Television ratings are in the toilet (even for the World Series), memorabilia sales are down, baseball cards are a joke…It sucks. Attendance may be up at games, purely because stadiums are much larger, and the sheer population has grown. I would wager that percentage-wise, things are down. I could be wrong.

I like Bill Simmons pretty well, but his columns all either 1) bemoan the state of the league, 2) bemoan the state of the Celtics, or 3) deal humorously with player scandals and irrelevencia.

He did.

Baseball has lost its primacy as America’s sport, although that goes back before Selig. The credibility of the game itself is in the toilet, and I think some of the good points you mention aren’t sustainable. There’s more parity in baseball, yes, but there’s also a big chunk of teams that start every season knowing they are not even going to compete.
If baseball is in such great shape, why was it discussing the elimination of four teams - including at least one consistent winner, the Twins - just a few years ago?

Entirely? Of course not. But he was complicit in ignoring it, along with a lot of other people. We’ll see how the ref thing plays out, but everyone has always trashed NBA officials anyway - I don’t think it’s as big a deal as steroids in baseball at the moment.

Selig is no longer an owner. He divested himself of the Brewers quite some time ago.

Baseball ratings are down because broadcast ratings across the board are down, considering most of us now have 100 plus channel choices. Admittedly I don’t know the numbers, but many baseball teams now have thier own channels that rake in tons of money, so things can’t be all bad.

As for attendance being up because stadiums are bigger, this is wrong. Most new stadiums are smaller than the ones they replaced. Pittsburg, for example, went from cavernous Three Rivers to the smallest stadium in baseball. Despite selling out virtually every game, the new Yankees stadium will be smaller than the current one.

Isn’t that partly because teams are making more room for more expensive luxury suites?


The Twins were not a consistent winner when it was discussed. They surprised everyone by turning into a consistent winner after the discussion had started.

Again, about the steroid thing, I would love for someone to explain to me how Selig could have addressed steroids back in the 90’s without causing baseball’s version of WW2 with the union. Remember, this was back before there was any proof that something fishy was going on. BALCO, Kaminetti, Canseco, etc. hadn’t happened yet. I remember announcers commenting on how players had gotten huge, but this was largely attributed to the advent of year-round weight lifting. The most popular explanation for the home run explosion back then was that parks were smaller, that the ball was somehow different, or that pitching was watered down due to expansion. SI or ESPN even went to the baseball factory in the DR to try and figure out if something was different with the balls.

Later, after SI’s piece on steroids, Canseco’s book, BALCO, etc. Fehr still went before congress and stonewalled on steroids. Rember the first testing agreement? It was a joke with no suspension for a first time offense, but that was all the union would assent to. It was only after the outcry from the public, and many players themselves, became deafening that the union agreed to the current testing policy.

As far as competitive balance goes, I contend that baseball’s is actually quite healthy. You maintain that teams start out the season with no hope, but there really aren’t that many. Who outside of Pittsburg, KC, and Tampa would you put in that category? In the past ten years baseball has had 7 different World Series winners. Compare that to the NBA. Far more teams start the season with no hope of winning the title; and in the past 10 years there have only been 5 different champions, with the Spurs and Lakers winning 7 out of those 10 championships.

As for why it was contemplating contracting 2 teams (not 4), that was nothting more than a ploy on Selig’s part to get Minnesota to build the Twins a new stadium, which worked, by the way. Now we can argue whether that is particularly ethical or good for the taxpayers of Minnesota, but it is certainly good for the bottom line of the Twins organization, who are a perfect example, by the way, of the competitive health of baseball.

Yes, thats true, but the trend league wide is for smaller stadiums with better sight lines, wider concourses, less upper deck seats, and more luxury boxes. Overall, compare the new stadiums to the old ones, and most, if not all, hold less people than the old ones.

I seem to recall that contraction was mentioned in 2002, which was the first of three straight years the Twins won the AL Central. Maybe it was before the season? They had a winning record in 2001 anyway, and Oakland’s name was also bandied about, even if that was unofficially.

The other team that was official discusses for contraction was Tampa Bay. Honestly, this wasn’t such a bad idea. Tampa plays in a horrible stadium that is 40 minutes from Tampa in St. Pete. The area has an old demographic that is largely transplanted from other areas of the country. Florida, generally speaking, does a poor job of supporting sports teams outside of football and the Heat. The Yankees have their spring training facility IN Tampa, and probably have more support in that area than the Devil Rays.

At this point, I would almost prefer baseball admit it made a mistake with the Devil Rays and either move them or contract them. As currently situated, the DRays just aren’t a viable major league franchise. That isn’t an indictment of baseball’s system (except that it expanded into Tampa at all). They are basically a minor league team attempting to compete in the majors. Its kinda like if the Kansas City Wizards tried to compete in the Premiere League. They are in over their head.

The NBA, I think, could actually go a long way toward improving their product by elimitating a few teams and raising the talent level league-wide.

No, it isn’t a bad idea.

All of the pro leagues probably could at this point. The NHL has teams in Phoenix, Columbus and Nashville, for crying out loud.

The point is that he did nothing - other than, eventually, trying to act shocked. And so we find ourselves in the current situation, where Barry Bonds is going to break the home run record, the public is unhappy about it, but Selig can’t do anything and can’t even decide if he wants to be in the stands while Bonds is playing.

To answer your question about non-competitive baseball teams, off the top of my head I’d list Washington, Florida, Tampa, Pittsburgh, Kansas City and maybe Colorado. I know Florida won the Series a few years ago, but nobody expects their current team to do anything at all. There are some second-tier losers I would think about including as well, like anyone in the AL East who isn’t the Red Sox or Yankees.