David Stern, the Most Overrated Sports Commissioner

by journojames on March 8, 2012

Originally published Nov. 6, 2011

It’s Day 128 of the NBA lockout and there’s still no resolution between owners and players. Instead, NBA Commissioner David Stern offered the players’ union what sounded like an angry ultimatum. He basically told them to accept a chance to earn up to 51 percent of basketball-related income by Wednesday or face a deal that would be much worse. Frustrated players responded by contemplating the possibility of decertifying the union and filing an antitrust case against the league.

What a mess.

NBA Commissioner David Stern, Photo courtesy of Sports Traveler

No matter how the lockout is settled, this basketball fiasco has shown that Stern is the most overrated sports commissioner in America and that his legacy has deservedly been tainted.

The blame game surrounding this messy financial fight all seem to be directed towards either the billionaire owners or the millionaire players. But, why has Commissioner Stern, more or less, dodged most of the criticism? Isn’t he ultimately the most responsible for this debacle?

Recently, Bryant Gumbel of HBO’s “Real Sports” did, in fact, harshly criticize Stern for his mishandling of the lockout.

“Stern’s version of what’s been going on behind closed doors has, of course, been disputed,” Gumbel said. “But his efforts were typical of a commissioner who has always seemed eager to be viewed as some kind of modern plantation overseer, treating NBA men as if they were his boys.”

“His moves are intended to do little more than show how he’s the one keeping the hired hands in their place.”

Gumbel’s comments were, of course, controversial. But, they were also misguided and flawed. The slavery analogy has been used before in professional sports, but the incredibly lucrative contracts of today’s professional athletes and their glamorous lifestyles envied by just about everyone, says that this isn’t about slavery. Is Stern a racist? No. Is he a poor leader? Yes. And this is why he should be criticized.

Real Sports commentator Bryant Gumbel, Photo courtesy of HBO

Just two short months ago, an article in the Los Angeles Times concluded that Stern was currently considered the best sports commissioner among sports business experts. They factored in various economic, labor and field-of-play issues. The No. 1 ranking for Stern was mostly based on the incredible growth the NBA had experienced under his watch since 1984. Back then, many teams were losing money and the Finals were on tape delay in many markets across the country. Today, the NBA is a multi-billion dollar sports brand that is recognized and loved around the world. The Finals are even shown live now.

But, can Stern be credited with so much of its success? Not really. Look closer. He may be a talented marketer, but it was his luck of being at the right place at the right time, more than anything else, that allowed him to take credit for the enormous growth and success of the league.

Timing is everything, and it certainly was for Stern. When he became the commissioner, the NBA just happened to be blossoming with Hall of Fame players. Magic Johnson and the “Showtime” Lakers were dazzling basketball fans on one coast, while Larry Bird and the Celtics were doing the same on the other. Don’t forget, four of the NBA’s biggest superstars also entered the league the same year Stern became commissioner: Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon and John Stockton. It was Magic and Bird’s rivalry that really saved the league and cemented live broadcasts of NBA games. And it was Jordan, in particular, with his extraordinary play and his charisma, who elevated the NBA to new heights in popularity. Stern was just lucky enough to be around when these Hall of Famers were reaching their greatness.

NBA Lockout 2011, Photo by Bebeto Matthews, courtesy of AP

Stern’s leadership skills should be seriously questioned. Under his tenure, the league has suffered four lockouts or work stoppages of some kind, in 1995, 1996, 1998-99, and now in 2011. When compared to other major professional sports, which have enjoyed much more labor peace, Stern comes up mightily short as a strong leader, who can negotiate, persuade and keep a league together. The NFL has suffered only five work stoppages since 1968. And MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, who’s leadership always seems to be mocked and ridiculed, has dealt with only one major work stoppage in the last 20 years.

Also, remember that it was under Stern’s tenure, just three years ago, that the legitimacy of his entire league was questioned. In 2008, it was learned that former NBA referee Tom Donaghy bet on games that he officiated and made calls affecting the point spread of those games. Donaghy claimed that other refs did, too. Basketball officiating had always been in question to a certain degree by imaginative fans, but this major scandal legitimized those wild conspiracy theorists, hurting the league’s credibility and showing just how little control Stern had of his own league.

If those reasons don’t put his leadership skills into question, perhaps his business acumen should. The sports business experts in the L.A. Times article said that they also measured a commissioner’s success by the increase of the league’s average franchise value during his tenure. If that’s the case, does it make any sense that Stern was rated so favorably when he claimed earlier this year that his entire league was facing serious financial setbacks? In fact, Stern claimed that 22 of 30 teams lost money last year, due, in part, to the bad collective bargaining agreement from 1998-99. Stern oversaw that agreement.

In 2008, Stern helped relocate the SuperSonics from Seattle to Oklahoma City. Perhaps this made some financial sense in the short run with Oklahoma City being able to guarantee a new arena and sellout crowds that Seattle couldn’t. But, does it truly make good business sense to move a team out of the nation’s 14th largest market and into the 50th? Perhaps short-sided, questionable decisions like these by Stern explain some of the league’s major financial woes.

Clueless Commissioner, Photo courtesy of the Play is Ungar Review

If a commissioner’s main responsibilities are to oversee labor peace for the good of the game and to protect the owner’s interests, Stern has failed miserably. The chasm between owners and players seem to be widening with bitterness. The owners are claiming financial losses. The arenas are still empty and television screens across the country are void of basketball, leaving fans angry and frustrated.

History seems to be repeating itself again. When Stern became NBA commissioner in 1984, the majority of the teams were losing money, basketball fans were lucky to get a glimpse of the NBA Finals, and they were hoping for some real leadership in a league that didn’t seem to have any. Almost 30 years later, not much seems to have changed.

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