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Stern: NBA Savior or Soul Killing Fascist?

The presence or absence of a strong commissioner is clearly a key to success in major professional sports leagues (see the Bud Selig years for evidence of the results of the absence end of the spectrum). From the uncompromising decisions of Kenesaw Mountain Landis to the debonair gladhanding of Pete Rozelle, commissioners can shape the culture and economics of their sports in paradigm altering ways.

So what do we make of David Stern? He is credited with much in the elevation of the NBA from a low profile, rag tag assembly to a tight, international marketing phenomenon. But the question has always lingered whether the esteem heaped upon him as causative change agent is deserved or whether he is the Accidental Commish, catching the Bird-Magic wave aboard the good ship Jordan. Is he a visionary leader or a calculating opportunist?

Now, over the last few years, the omnipotent Stern has diagnosed the NBA with a case of Global Expressive Disorder. The Pistons-Pacers brawl gave him all the justification he needed to drop the hammer, and smote he has. The fellas dressed in a way Czar David deemed “inappropriate” and clearly reminiscent of a gang culture Stern and others did not understand and certainly did not wish to condone. Thus the dress code was introduced. For those owners - ok mostly the one from Big D â€" who believe they actually employ the benevolent dictator and have deep enough pockets to go toe-to-toe in the middle of the ring with the Czar, here’s a little code of conduct for your Billionaire Boys Club. Oh, and those entitled young men who are actually the product of this enterprise, for kvetching to the referees more than good decorum would dictate, shamelessly soiling young minds throughout the world, ye shall have the sign of the T tattooed across your chest â€" if room can be found. Look out guys, methinks Mr. Stern does not have Motley Crue album covers emblazoned on his behind. He will almost certainly get around to your body art in due time.

Clearly the Commish is either a stern moralist or a protective capitalist. Let’s just say, my general world view always leads me to believe everyone is the latter rather than the former. So assuming this motivation, is Stern correct to be concerned about the integrity of this product of which his is the preeminent steward? Is the NBA culture that has exuding for past decade emanating from players such as AI, Rasheed, Ron Ron, and certain owners in danger of alienating not just the vast domestic fan base, but the burgeoning international audience? Can’t they all just be like that nice Timmy Duncan? Will a billion Chinese turn their heads in disgust, refuse to plop down their yuan for jerseys and NBATV, unless these surly curs are kept in line?

I am a white, middle-aged, father of two living in the suburbs who does data analysis for a living. I could not name 3 current hip hop groups if one of Tony Allen’s chums held a gun to my head. I am colorless and dull on a good day. But I must say, I’m starting to take umbrage for all those whose ethnicity and culture has largely shaped the style of play and expression of personality in the NBA the last 30 to 40 years. Apparently, it’s fine to populate the player ranks with largely inner city or poor rural young men, many of who grew up in very difficult circumstances, and make money off of them. But then they must leave all signs of their personal style, belief system and culture at home. Please take off the bling (see I’m hip right?), leave the baggy pants in the closet, and put on this nice grey suit. Hey, every other corporation can set a dress code, why not the NBA? And when the referee blows that foul call in the last 10 seconds of a one point game, please respond with “Jolly good try, sir. My perspective just slightly differs from yours on that call.” And please review the spreadsheet Czar Stern emailed about the allowable media talking points. Stay away from anything too controversial please, like favorite color or last movie watched. Answers to those are bound to lead one to believe you are an individual, and we can’t have that, can we?

Yet, I also admit I hate the incessant complaining to referees that occurs, until the ongoing game seems an afterthought to the righteousness of the wronged player’s complaints. Our beloved Mr. Pierce certainly has taken liberties with court-long protestations as the opposing five break for an easy two. But is the answer that we force every player into an implacable Vulcan? Yes, there also is an element of thuggery and aggression embodied by some NBAers, one that most people of various upbringings and ethnic backgrounds stand in unison and reject. But baggy pants, gold necklaces, and hip hop music do not a thug make.

Free speech is a nice concept as long as Mark Cuban isn’t abusing it I guess. You know what, I want Cuban and his ilk to continue to be heard, because occasionally he is right and most knowledgeable fans know the difference between when he is blowing smoke because he can be under controlled child and when he actually has a point. Cuban adds a measure of intrigue, energy, and dimension to the league. The problem is that often comes at the expense of Czar Stern. And, once again, we can’t have that, can we?

At some point this is all becoming Pat Boone singing Long Tall Sally. Yeah, that Little Richard is more charismatic, talented, and sincere, but Sally and Tommy are just not going to be able to relate. In order to make the NBA product culturally acceptable to the widest audience, do we need to strip it of the essence of those who have made it successful thus far, make it a room of beige walls and eggshell trim, so whoever enters will not face any culture shock? Or do we give the world more credit: that they are unafraid of personalities and cultures different from their own, that dissent and occasional discord are not the markers of anarchy but the dialectic that makes all human exchange interesting?

So I say to you Commissioner Stern, please, enough is enough. There is some good intent there: go ahead, get players and coaches to stop complaining so frequently and long and make sure your players are not engaging in violent or grossly disrespectful behavior. Fine Mark Cuban until he’s down to his last 4-5 billion if you must. But you’ve gone too far, and it’s made you look like an insecure, monomaniacal, culturally insensitive killjoy who no one wants to sit with at the league award dinner. Understand that building a multi-cultural league of White- and African-Americans, Brazilians, Eastern Europeans, Senegalese, Chinese, Koreans, Australians, etc. should be a celebration of diversity and individuality, not a cleansing of it.