David Stern, a Bully to All Except NBA Owners
By Evan Weiner
Now retired National Basketball Association Commissioner David Stern will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Mae in Springfield, Massachusetts on August 8. This is a legacy honor and in many ways David Stern deserves to be enshrined into basketball’s Valhalla. The game grew by leaps and bounds internationally during his 30 year tenure as the commissioner. But before all the platitudes are thrown Stern’s way perhaps two items should be brought up that need answers.
Why didn’t David Stern hand out discipline to New York Knicks owner James Dolan after he was found guilty in a courtroom of sexual harassment and violating sexual harassment federal law in 2007 that was taking place within the basketball business? Why did Stern seemingly ignore Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s housing discrimination suit and settlement? Why did Stern seemingly play dumb and not investigate Elgin Baylor’s lawsuit against Sterling for being fired because of age discrimination. It is one thing for a jury to rule against Baylor as it did but in the matter of basketball operations there was some what could be considered damaging to the logo testimony during that trial.
Stern followed the Peter Ueberroth doctrine. Do everything you can to protect the logo because the logo is a league’s most important business asset. Or a team’s most important business item. And Stern has a long record of doing just that.
But that record extends only to disciplining players or a “rogue” referee. Sure there were “fines” because Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban complained about league officials but those indiscretions amount to the equivalent of misdemeanors. Stern did get “tough” on Oklahoma City Thunder minority owner Aubrey McClendon by fining him $250,000 for saying that an Oklahoma City group of investors purchased the Seattle SuperSonics franchise with the intention of moving the team to Oklahoma.
Stern took $500,000 of Miami Heat owner Micky Arison’s money for Arison’s tweet about the 2011-12 lockout. Stern hot Minnesota TimberWolves owner Glen Taylor for $3.5 million and draft picks for playing games with the cherished salary cap.
All sort of pedestrian nuisance penalties.
But Stern never took on Dolan or Sterling, both of whom were his bosses.
Stern probably knew where his bread was buttered and as long as he was bringing the owners billions of dollars under his leadership, threatening cities with the removal of franchises unless the municipalities knuckled under and built new places for his owners, Stern was golden.
Going after owners for real problems that might have caused Stern a problem and might have caused him to seek new employment either on his own or at their suggestion. Sterling had a track record but Stern did nothing and his successor Adam Silver only acted after a leaked audio tape ended up on a tabloid website and the money people threatened to take their money out of Sterling’s LA Clippers franchise and Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson helped organize the players to boycott playoff action because of what Sterling said on a recording. Racist and sexist remarks which became too toxic for the league because the audio ended up in a back alley of journalism and spread like wildfire.
Johnson and Stern were close. Stern got Johnson to agree to spend money Sacramento doesn’t have to build a new arena for a new set of Kansas City Kings owners after Stern managed to dump the Maloof brothers who didn’t want a new building in Sacramento necessarily. Johnson was a former NBA player who went to the mat for Stern.
Stern did go after players with a vengeance. He somehow managed to get the players association to agree to bar 18-year-olds from being drafted and entering the NBA despite being high school graduates (the NBA draft is essentially a violation of the Sherman antitrust act since it limits the ability of entry level job applicants from negotiating with more than one potential employer but is legal because of a collective bargaining agreement between owners and players). He fined and suspended players from playing following a brawl in Auburn Hills which ended up in the stands
He fined the Knicks J. R. Smith $50,000 for untying the shoe laces of an opposing player.
Stern went after politicians publicly. He accused New Jersey elected officials of “blowing it” after New Jersey Nets owners could not get public funding for a building in Newark, New Jersey. He went after other elected officials for daring to suggest that casinos should open up sportsbooks in Delaware. Yet the league has a Women’s Basketball Association casino partner in Connecticut. Stern went after politicians in Ontario and British Columbia in Canada and wanted a sports lottery shut down in exchange for placing franchises in Toronto and Vancouver.
Stern fined Kobe Bryant $100,000 for a gay slur, he fined Houston coach Jeff Van Gundy for criticizing referees. He even tried to get $25 million from Sterling in 1984 when Sterling moved his franchise from San Diego to Los Angeles. Sterling countered with a $100 million lawsuit, the two sides settled with Sterling paying $6 million to enter Los Angeles. It should be noted that Sterling hired attorney Max Blecher to represent him in his proposed suit against the NBA and that Blecher had just beaten the National Football League’s attempt to block Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis’s planned move from Northern California to the Los Angeles Coliseum. Perhaps Stern, an attorney by trade, realized that NBA relocation by laws were shaky at best particularly since the NBA allowed the Kansas City franchise to be relocated to Sacramento the year before.
Stern fought his own owners over games being televised on United States “superstations” on cable TV in Chicago, WGN and Atlanta, WTBS, to protect other owners’ home markets and the cannibalization of local television ratings as Michael Jordan and WGN games would go against local games and regularly beat the home team. That was one of the few times Stern went against his owners but that was business.
Stern’s tenure took place during Sterling’s years of Clippers ownership in San Diego and Los Angeles. Sterling allegedly dropped a racial slur in interviewing a potential coach for his San Diego Clippers and the league did nothing. Stern wanted to impose a dress code for players but did nothing to Dolan and Isaiah Thomas in the Anucha Browne Sanders sexual harassment verdict.
Maybe that best commissioner/genius title bestowed upon Stern by fawning sportswriters needs to be removed. Stern deserves a place in Springfield but his failure to act and handing out a league punishment for tarnishing the logo in the Dolan and Sterling matters needs to be noted as well.
Evan Weiner can be reached at email@example.com. His e-book, “The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition” is available (https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/365489 ) and his e-books, America’s Passion: How a Coal Miner’s Game Became the NFL in the 20th Century, (https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/americas-passion-how-coal/id595575002?mt=11 ), From Peach Baskets to Dance Halls and the Not-so-Stern NBA (https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/from-peach-baskets-to-dance/id636914196?mt=11 ) and the reissue of the 2005 book, The Business and Politics of Sports (http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/business-and-politics-of-sports-evan-weiner/1101715508?ean=2940044505094) and reissue of the 2010 e-book The Business and Politics of Sports, Second EditionDavid Stern, a Bully to All Except NBA Owners by Evan Weiner