Maybe David Stern Isn't So Bad After All

Mark J. Rebilas-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

A year ago, David Stern was driving the NBA through a nasty lockout, alienating fans everywhere. Thanks to his colleagues in the NFL and NHL, he looks like a saint among devils now.

A year ago, I couldn't write enough about how angry David Stern made me. The NBA was in the throes of its second game-costing lockout -- a stoppage created and enforced by franchise owners, most of them fabulously wealthy -- and had proposed only an unrealistic, vicious proposal redistributing the fruits of the game back to the teams. The owners had learned in 1998 and in a brother league's full-season lockout a few years later that eventually the middle class of players -- the guys who don't have eight-figure Nike contracts, the guys who hit the lottery when they get a mid-level exception deal -- will cave and demand to come back to work. David Stern knew this, and implemented his owners' terrible plan to make the players squeal.

But though I resented his deceit and attempts at union-busting, he has been not nearly as bad as his colleagues in the NFL and NHL.

Gary Bettman, the commissioner of the NHL, executed that aforementioned full season lockout in 2004-05. He wasted no time going right back to the lockout well this time around. Imagine our surprise when the Holy Grail of franchise owners -- the hard salary cap -- didn't work as planned! Bettman broke legs to get the owners' plan in place, screwing team employees, arena employees, complimentary businesses and fans ... and the plan wasn't even good enough in the end. Bettman got basically everything he could have dreamed for in 2005. It's 20-flipping-12, and he's asking for more. At least Stern had the decency to wait 13 years between lockouts, right?

The NBA was actually moments from a lockout in 2005, but Stern dialed back expectations for his owners and reached a sane deal that was amenable to players -- the commissioner didn't want to press his obvious advantage and alienate fans and sponsors during such a fragile moment for the league. By 2011, with teams reportedly bleeding out, he had little choice but to do his vocal owners' bidding. They are, after all, his bosses. But in minimizing (if not outright preventing) damage in 2005, Stern showed that he runs the NBA and that he doesn't think so lowly of fans, sponsors and TV partners that he's willing to screw them repeatedly. Just occasionally.

Bettman either has no such power with his employers (NHL team owners), or has no qualms with cutting the ice from beneath the damaged parties' feet. We complain about Stern's tactics, but at least he's (to date) judicious with his ultimate weapon, and at least he hasn't (to date) cost us an entire season with hardball positions. We'll revisit this comparison in 2017, of course.

But the brother-in-arms who really makes Stern look like Saint David is the NFL's Roger Goodell. Pro football didn't lose any games in its most recent lockout, but that doesn't mean Goodell didn't play hardball. They ran it right up to the wire, costing players and coaches valuable prep time and making the many interested parties sweat. But the lockout that has really shown Goodell's dark side is the current one being waged against officials.

Lockouts against players are bad, messy and distinctly gross, but they don't exactly put other groups in harm's way. Goodell's insane official lockout is legitimately putting NFL players -- the guys who allow NFL team owners to rake in incredible amounts of cash -- at risk. Through two weeks, the replacement refs -- who are from deep in the ranks, owing to labor solidarity -- have been disastrous. Soon enough, a player is going to get seriously hurt, and not because players get hurt in football, but because these uncredible* officials are going to lose control of a game.

Stern actually did lock out NBA referees recently, over the same issues Goodell is looking to change (benefit pay). But, obviously, NBA games aren't as physical and violent as NFL games. The potential for serious, life-altering injury is present in the NBA, but in much, much smaller doses. Further, Stern didn't let the NBA official lockout dip into the regular season: he caved on a few items, cut a deal and got his refs into the preseason before any damage could be done. Goodell did not, and NFL players are being put at risk for it. As Steve Young said so bluntly: the NFL does not care if you are aggravated or if players are at risk. Goodell does not care.

And that's the difference between Goodell, Bettman and Stern, I think. Stern acts like he doesn't care and comes off as an incredibly cold assassin during negotiations. He's an excellent poker player -- he had writers from coast to coast raging against him a year ago. Ultimately, he cut a deal and got back to the important work of administering the world's best basketball league. Goodell and Bettman are seriously just incredibly cold assassins who either gladly do the bidding of their bosses or have little say in the matter. As an NBA fan, watching what loyal NHL fans and committed NFL fans are going through, in addition to the safety issues facing NFL players -- it makes me glad that the NBA has Stern.

I can't believe I'm writing this, especially just nine months after the NBA's ridiculous lockout ended. But the NBA has the best commissioner in sports. Even a pro-labor, anti-age limit writer like me can admit that.

***

The Hook is a daily NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.

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