David Stern is really, really good at not telling the truth. Not lying, exactly. But not telling the truth. For instance, if he was president in 2004 and you asked him about weapons of mass destruction, he'd answer.
Only he wouldn't.
He'd point to a British Intelligence report, he'd cite the tragedy 9/11, and he'd emphasize the importance of fighting terrorists abroad instead of at home. And it would all be true, and true enough to cover up the lie.
If he was President in 1997 and you asked him whether he ever had sex with Monica Lewinsky, he'd smile, tilt his head, and offer a curt no comment. If pressed, maybe he'd offer a soliloquy on the values of the executive office. He'd tilt his head again, offer an exaggerated sigh, and lament that we were even having such a frivolous discussion. Maybe he'd even publicly acknowledge his critics--"What's the name again? Ms. Tripp?"--and wonder about their motivations.
If he was a baseball player facing congress and you asked whether he's ever taken performance enhancing drugs, he would nod and tell you that he takes performance enhancing drugs every single day. "But to the best of my knowledge," he'd add with a smirk, "Centrum's Multi-Vitamins are still legal." Next question please.
There would be no lies, because there never are. But no truth, either.
No, if you want to find a drop of sincerity in the oceans of rhetoric surrounding the NBA lockout, you gotta go back to the day it all began. When David Stern held a press conference to announce the NBA lockout and explained the situation like so: "Our owners are at bottom running a business that they want to make certain modifications to."
That's what the NBA lockout is all about. Not a battle of billionaires vs. millionaires that symbolizes the worst elements of human greed. Not a necessary evil to protect the future of the league. It's pretty simple:
- NBA owners are at bottom running a business.
- They want to modify that business to make more money.
- The NBA lockout is how they're going to do it.
The NBA players are the cattle, the lockout is the cattle prod. And then there's David Stern, the man standing in front of a slaughterhouse feigning dismay. Maybe he's not lying when he says he hates to see it happen, but he's not telling the truth when he acts like the cattle left him no choice.
Whether it's latent racism or blatant jealousy, a large portion of fans refuse to root for the players. That's what makes Stern's treatment of the players so frustrating. Don't get me wrong; the worst case scenario for NBA players is still the best case scenario for just about anyone else on earth, and nobody's actually being slaughtered here. But even if they're not really victims, it's insane how quickly the players become villains.
Someone like Bill Plaschke is hardly a representation of how NBA media has covered the lockout, but this sure seems like how the mainstream sees it, and Stern's partly to blame.
"The NBA players need to do the math, listen to the yawns, and look in the mirror," he wrote in a column last week. "Take a pay cut and go back to work in a sport that will be healthier because of it. ... What happens if the players take that horrible pay cut? They will still be the highest-paid team athletes in American pro sports. Some of them will still make millions to spend their lives on a bench."
Calling basketball players the "highest-paid team athletes in American pro sports" completely overlooks the basic reality that there the number of NBA players is roughly 25% of NFL players, so it's expected they'd net a higher average salary. There's no need to pick apart his reasoning, though; what's more important is his reasoning for writing it at all.
What Plaschke does is just good business. He's pandering to a built-in audience full of readers who already resent athletes for being so wealthy in the first place. The column writes itself. RAWR! NBA PLAYERS ALREADY MAKE MILLIONS! CAN'T THEY MAKE LESS MILLIONS?
It speaks to a kneejerk reaction among mainstream fans that essentially penalizes NBA players for being lucky. They should be grateful to be playing at all, goes the reasoning. They make millions to put a leather ball through a hoop. It begs an obvious question, though: If we're handicapping NBA players for their prosperity, then how does everyone ignore the owners?
It all comes back to David Stern.
We never hear Stern talk about men like Robert Sarver, the Suns owner who needed $140 million in taxpayer dollars to bail out his bank's reckless investments. Nor do we hear about Dan Gilbert, the man who built his fortune on the same subprime mortgage model that sunk Sarver's bank.
No, while Gilbert and Sarver push for a better deal in a back room somewhere, David Stern's front and center on any network that'll have him, citing talking points like "competitive balance" and the "struggling economy"--the same economy that men like Sarver and Gilbert helped destroy.
Nobody can blame Stern for downplaying his owners as individuals, but what makes it worse is that he actively feeds and exploits the idea that NBA players are greedy and unreasonable. Like back in August, when he said, "The reality is that the way those dollars get made is from the sweat of 5,000 other people as well as the players, and the players are telling the owners and those people, well, you should be allowed to break even. That's not going to cut it."
Of course, if owners break even and the league continues to grow, they'll profit whenever they sell their team, and neither the players nor the "5,000 other people" Stern mentions will get a share. In the meantime, owning an NBA basketball team opens up 5,000 other revenue streams to help keep their coffers full. Stern's not lying when he leaves those details out, but... Well, you know.
That's a big reason why Stern's gone from making $3 million in 1990 to anywhere between $15 and $23 million today--he's really, really good at marketing his own version of the truth. A glorified version of Bill Plaschke, basically. And it's good business, even if it makes villains out of the same players who continue to make the league bigger than ever. Just like Stern's salary.
The lockout is a game unto itself. That's what resentful fans don't understand when they complain about arrogant, ungrateful players refusing bad deals. It's not about playing basketball for the next few months; at this point, playing basketball means the players lost.
As an NBA fan, this sucks. On the same day we ran a piece giving 100 reasons the NBA would have been fantastic this year, Stern warned that the lockout could last past Christmas. Threats like that have become a hallmark of Stern's rhetoric lately, but it's hard to imagine he's wrong.
But there's a difference between missing basketball and resenting this lockout. They are two different stories, about two different games. Stern's an easy villain for anyone who misses basketball, but that's not what this is about. It's how he's handled this lockout that deserves scorn.
When you parse the particulars of the bargaining process, a prolonged stoppage just makes no sense. The players have already offered significant concessions to help change a system that needs changing. Teams may have lost money under the current system, but the players have recognized that, and have offered to sacrifice $160 million dollars per season. Asking the players to shoulder any more responsibility for the NBA's losses is insulting.
If NBA owners are "at bottom running a business", then they should act like businessmen and take responsibility for their inexplicable business decisions that brought the NBA to this point. If these are truly serious businessmen, they should recognize the hidden and explicit value to owning a piece of a league that's grown steadily for 60 years. Instead, the players are supposed to guarantee them profit opportunities every single year. Who's being greedy and ungrateful?
As the lockout gets nastier and Stern grows more desperate to sell the public on a narrative that makes no sense, the stain this leaves on his legacy will be harder and harder to ignore. There's a difference between not telling the truth and outright lying, but if everyone eventually realizes you were full of crap all along... Does the difference even matter?
All the twisted rhetoric and half-truths don't change what's really happening here. The owners are using this lockout to increase profits and eliminate any risk, and they're willing to sacrifice a season to make it happen. It'd be one thing for Stern to go along for the ride, but he's driving this more than anyone. Now, while Stern and the owners refuse to compromise, for the second time in just over a decade, the NBA Commissioner is doing his damnedest to turn America against NBA players.
"How many times does it pay to keep meeting?" Stern asked Thursday. "And have the same things thrown back at you? We’re ready to sit down and make a deal, and I don’t think the union is."
So we're really blaming the cattle, huh?