Saturday, July 21, 2007

Bet Hubris and Give the Points.

NBA commissioner David Stern is big on appearances. Reality, not so much.

Just about every action Stern has taken in the past two years has been to maintain the image of professional basketball as a wholesome spectator activity for middle aged white guys with money. It was his mission to force young black men who grew up in the last 20 years to look as if they stepped out of a Chip Hilton novel. Woe to them if they ran afoul of the law. Stern had no compunction about essentially throwing the most important playoff series of the year because two players harmlessly violated his rules about going on the court during a beef. Oh, he's strict.

Stern has been stricter with the league's referees than with anyone else. They have been groomed to a standard of robotic behavior, and individualists, no matter how good at their demanding craft they might be, were ruthlessly weeded out. If a young Earl Strom walked into the sport today, he would wind up doing life at Big 12 games. Joey Crawford, a good ref with a bad temper, was essentially banned from the sport for losing his cool on national TV in a dispute with one of the NBA's marketable icons, Tim Duncan. Crawford was horribly, totally, in the wrong. Banishment, however, was the mark of Stern's increasingly petty tyranny.

And while all of this was going on, referee Tim Donaghy was, if the FBI is to be believed, shaving points on the job. Donaghy was Stern's beau ideal of a referee-nobody ever noticed him, including, it would seem, Stern himself.

However Donaghy gets sorted out by the legal system, for the NBA the damage is done. Many people have suspected pro basketball of being fixed since before I saw my first game in 1960. Anyone here old enough to remember when Earl Monroe sank the ball in his own basket as the buzzer went off to the final score on the number in the 1970s? Hell, Stern's first big moment as commish, the 1985 draft lottery that sent Patrick Ewing to the Knicks, was widely suspected of being a bag job.

It is accepted that NBA stars get the breaks in close calls. "Tie goes to the man with the higher salary" is a cliche that goes back to Wilt Chamberlain. This is, I think, because refs, like almost all human beings, tend to see what they expect to see. Now there's a fact on the table arguing for a more sinister interpretation of this ancient fact of pro hoop life.

An actual arrest is far more proof of fixing than gamblers, a paranoid lot by nature, need to convict the NBA. The media will follow close behind. This is approximately 1,000,000,000 times more damaging to the NBA as a business than the steroids mess is for baseball's bottom line. Roger Goodell is not a happy chappy this morning thinking about Michael Vick, but there isn't enough money in the world to get him to switch places with Stern.

The first job of a professional sports league commissioner is to maintain the integrity of the competition. It is the reason the post of commissioner was created. David Stern thought his job was to wring more money out of television and act to make sure the NBA LOOKED respectable. While he was doing so, the biggest scandal in U.S. pro sports of my lifetime was gathering steam under his nose.

If Stern had any shame, he'd have resigned yesterday. He didn't. Shame is a lost concept in modern American life. That's why so much of the news we make is so shameful.


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