Commentary

Discouraging words from David Stern

The moral posturing in David Stern's statement about Gilbert Arenas is questionable

Originally Published: January 7, 2010
By LZ Granderson | ESPN.com

There are three aspects of the Gilbert Arenas situation that I find almost as curious as Gil's personality.

First, if someone outside of law enforcement has to be told not to bring a gun to work, then I can't help but wonder what other common-sense nuggets are escaping his attention.

Second is the public's knee-jerk reaction to the fact that Arenas owns guns; or, for that matter, to the reality that any athlete owns guns. It's as if the NRA was started by Plaxico Burress. The issue isn't athletes and guns, it's the place guns hold in U.S. culture.

[+] EnlargeGilbert Arenas
Ned Dishman/NBAE/Getty ImagesGilbert Arenas deserves his suspension. How it came down is another issue.

But the one element in the Arenas case that really puzzles me is commissioner David Stern's word choice in announcing the suspension on Wednesday. He said that Arenas' "ongoing conduct has led me to conclude that he is not currently fit to take the court in an NBA game."

Something about those three words, "not currently fit," reeks of a moral judgment and opportunistic posturing to me. The league has seen its share of adulterers, gamblers, potheads and, in the case of Clippers owner Donald Sterling, a racist slumlord. There might not be much of the NBA left if Stern starts suspending people based on a "not currently fit" moral standard.

The truth is, Arenas should have been suspended the second he admitted to bringing firearms into the Wizards locker room before Christmas because it is against league policy -- period. Not after he began making light of the situation on Twitter and pointed his fingers in an imitation of a gun at a game many days later. The NBA understandably likes to wait for a criminal investigation to run its course, when it can. But what really changed between Dec. 24, when the news broke that Arenas had moved his guns out of his house and into the Verizon Center, and Wednesday? The news about the incident with Javaris Crittenton? Stern already knew the guns were where they weren't supposed to be when that story got out.

No, the suspension Stern handed down on Wednesday seems to have more to do with his bruised ego. According to league sources, the commissioner felt Arenas was taunting him with his laissez-faire attitude about the investigation. So is this really about breaking league rules, or is it because Arenas called Stern "mean" and did the mock gunslinger routine before Washington's game against Philly? And why isn't Crittenton, Arenas' teammate, suspended, too? Although he denies it, Crittenton had a loaded gun with him during the confrontation with Arenas, according to the Washington Post.

The answer is obvious: Gil ticked Stern off and the commissioner let his ego get involved in the disciplinary process, which makes it seem as if crossing the commissioner is more punishable than breaking league rules.

David Stern
AP Photo/Bill KostrounThe way he handled the Arenas situation raises concerns about David Stern's motives.

Maybe it sounds as if I'm splitting hairs or being nitpicky about the language in the statement, but the words "not currently fit" were not an accident. They were chosen carefully, and reflect a philosophy of situational ethics that is inherently unfair and easily corruptible. For example, a player deemed important to the league might get wiggle room for an offense that isn't provided to another player. It's hardly a comparable transgression, but last year, the league initially showed little inclination to fine LeBron James for skipping out on reporters following the Cavaliers' Game 6 playoff loss to Orlando. Stern changed his position three days after the fact, but only after considerable public scrutiny. It wasn't until he was called out by fans and the media that Stern actually enforced the league's policy.

The rules are in place, but they're enforced subjectively rather than objectively. Stern shifts as he sees fit. If ego and public opinion -- and not just the rules themselves -- are contributing factors in the league's responses, then a more subtle form of chaos can exist. Why take such a tough stance on suspending players for leaving the bench -- regardless of the nature of the incident and how far the players go onto the court -- but then bob and weave about guns in the locker room?

Stern's inconsistency is a problem, but it isn't as bad as his moral posturing after the fact. If you're going to massage the league's disciplinary standards based on who kisses the ring and when, then spare us the rhetoric suggesting a code of ethics is in play. If you're going to wait to see if the public makes a big deal out of a situation before you respond to it, then don't release statements sprayed with hints of morality.

It's well within Stern's right to determine when a player should be punished. Bosses big and small all over the planet exercise the same right. But Stern should know that the charade surrounding the motives for some of his decisions is transparent. And insulting.

LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at lzgranderson@yahoo.com.

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