"So you can't blame jazz musicians/or David Stern with his NBA fashion issues."
-- Nas, "Hip Hop is Dead"
When I first read about NBA commissioner David Stern's recent revisions to his league's rules regarding referees and gambling, I thought it was a Stephen Colbert parody. Stern -- the man who has consistently ruled with an iron fist regarding players -- was all of a sudden being considerate and reasonable? He couldn't be serious.
Chris Graythen/NBAE via Getty Images
David Stern didn't handle the referee scandal the same way he's handled player scandals, that's for sure.
It is also quite hypocritical.
In the past, when Stern has issued rulings regarding player conduct -- such as the dress code, or the policy about not talking back to referees -- he's been less than understanding. In these cases, he's operated more like a dictator than a considerate authority figure. That's why it was so unusual watching Stern squirm when addressing the media about the Donaghy scandal earlier this summer -- because he always comes off so self-assured when handing out player discipline. Perhaps Stern should've been paying more attention to what was going on with the refs, instead of telling grown men what to wear? Maybe then this problem might have been avoided.
The Donaghy scandal should be the league's worst nightmare. Since the refs are making judgment calls, it's very easy to believe that a referee's judgment might be influenced by factors other than what is visible to the naked eye. Is it TV ratings, an untouchable superstar, the desire to see some new superstar emerge and bolster the league's image, or -- in the case of Donaghy -- a gambling addiction and a debt to certain criminal figures that motivates the calls? Who knows anymore?
Although fans say things like "the game was fixed" all the time, deep down they don't really believe that, because most continue to watch the games in spite of their occasional disgust with the referees. Yet because the Donaghy case is out in the open now, people are starting to feel as if maybe their rants about crooked referees are not so farfetched. When fans watch the games, they want to know that what they're watching is real. The last thing the NBA needs is to be thought of as fake, like professional wrestling. When that happens, it's a wrap.
So one would expect, based on past examples, that Stern would be most judicious when issuing his edicts about referees and their behavior. This pertains to the very integrity of the sport itself. But Stern has assured us that Donaghy was a lone wolf -- that he was the exception and not the rule. In other words, Donaghy alone was the problem, so all Stern needs to do is get rid of the one causing the problem. Case closed. To prove this is the case, Stern decided to relax certain rules for the rest of the referees, as a way of demonstrating that this problem was confined to one man and that it's been resolved.
Yet in the post-Palace brawl NBA, Stern's been anything but understanding and reasonable when it comes to dealing with the players! Even though the craziness at the Palace can be blamed on one player -- Ron Artest -- Stern decided the actions of this one player somehow incriminated the rest of the league. Stern, like a conservative politician appealing to the law-and-order vote, felt the need to show who's in charge by disciplining the entire league. What followed were new rules regarding what players could and couldn't wear -- the "fashion issues" that Nas was referring to. Grown men -- in many cases multimillionaires -- were told how to dress, as though they were little boys. And Stern later decided that these little boys should be seen and not heard. The league changed the rules about technical fouls, and eventually made it so that the simple questioning of a referee's call risked the possibility of drawing a tech.
To compound all of this, Stern consulted with former Republican operative Matthew Dowd, a man who played a key role in President George W. Bush's 2004 re-election campaign. Dowd advised Stern on the league's image, and how the sport could appeal to those who embraced red-state politics. One of Dowd's findings was that many of the people he polled regarded NBA players as "thugs." In line with Dowd's advice, Stern decided to attack the culture thought to be responsible for breeding these alleged "thugs" -- that, of course, would be hip-hop culture. Stern's contempt for it is obvious in his dress code ruling.
Even though Ron Artest represents a minuscule percentage of the NBA, the whole league -- most especially its black players -- is now paying for the individual sins of Artest.
Perhaps Stern's recent slap-on-the-wrist suspension of Lakers owner Jerry Buss for his drunk-driving incident was intended to show that punitive actions could be applied to owners as well as players. But even that rings hollow. The fact that Clippers owner Donald Sterling has never been sanctioned, even though he's been sued by the Justice Department for housing discrimination, is a joke. The nature of Sterling's real estate transgressions is most reprehensible. Housing discrimination is at the core of some of this nation's oldest and worst crimes against humanity. But not only has Sterling never been disciplined, many people don't even know about this situation. An NBA owner -- whose team, like the rest of the league, is predominately black -- has been accused by federal prosecutors of refusing to rent his apartments to black people. Yet Stern has done nothing. If Stern were really serious about being fair and balanced, he would have dealt with Sterling a long time ago.
Admittedly, David Stern is in a tough position. As a white man who oversees a predominately black league, in a nation with such a troubled racial history, Stern's every move is scrutinized. Those who favor the law-and-order approach will always think that Stern is too lenient on the players. Others will think all his decisions against black players are racially biased, regardless of whether there is evidence to support such claims. This difference of opinion more broadly reflects what it means to live in a diverse society, where people arrive at conclusions based on their own unique personal backgrounds and experiences.
But, at the end of the day, David Stern's attempt at being a "compassionate conservative" makes a tough position tougher, and it also ends up exposing him to even more criticism because he is so hypocritical when using double standards to enact his punitive measures.
Dr. Todd Boyd, a columnist for Page 2, is an author, media commentator and professor of critical studies at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. His next book, "The Notorious Ph.D.'s Guide to the Super Fly '70s," is now available.