Commentary

Stern's silence speaks volumes about NBA's sense of fairness

Originally Published: October 2, 2007
By J.A. Adande | ESPN.com

The only thing more remarkable than the New York Knicks not taking action against Isiah Thomas is the NBA not taking action against the Knicks.

At least the Knicks under Cablevision's James Dolan have a history of supporting Thomas, no matter how bad his performance and how inexplicable their support. If a $45 million luxury tax bill for a team that missed the playoffs -- again -- didn't cost Thomas his job, why would another $11.6 million hit from a jury that ruled in favor of Anucha Browne Sanders in her sexual harassment lawsuit against Madison Square Garden make any difference?

David Stern
Chris Graythen/NBAE via Getty ImagesDavid Stern might be wise to carefully advise MSG against an appeal.

But the league's silence? NBA commissioner David Stern is supposed to be the tough guy, the papa who don't take no mess, the one with a history of wielding hammers like a Habitat for Humanity volunteer. He holds players accountable for what they wear to the games, what lines they rap in a recording studio, how they behave in the offseason.

But when it comes to owners, he's been a softie. Los Angeles Lakers owner Jerry Buss pleaded guilty to drunk driving over the summer without any repercussions from the league. What's a bigger threat to society: a 23-year-old player walking into the locker room with baggy jeans and a do-rag or a 74-year-old team owner driving with a blood alcohol content of .13?

Now there's this Garden mess, in which Dolan came off as an indifferent frathouse president, Thomas was portrayed as a person who doesn't mind women being called "bitches" (as long as black people are saying it) and doesn't care about the season ticket holders (as long as they are white people), and the term "truck sex" appeared in a New York Post headline (to describe a rendezvous between a player and a team intern).

If Stern is concerned about the "culture" of the NBA, and how it's viewed by fans and sponsors, shouldn't he start with the Knicks?

Dolan and Thomas should be fined and suspended -- or even removed, if Stern could stomach all the legal bills that would entail.

The argument is that because this is a civil suit there were no laws broken, so it's not the commissioner's place to act. But it's really the opposite. A civil complaint should give the commissioner leeway to act regardless of the outcome because he doesn't have to worry about interfering with a criminal case.

As he has shown, Stern has every right to hold the members of his league to whatever standards of conduct he deems appropriate. He has punished players and others for non-criminal behavior in the past, including then-Nets coach John Calipari for using a slur against a Latino reporter.

And a year ago, Stern and the NBA Board of Governors enacted a new code of conduct for owners. Yes, it was probably born to address the excessive behavior of Mark Cuban -- who's been fined multiple times for more than $1.5 million for non-criminal behavior, by the way -- but of course it's supposed to apply to all owners equally.

This lawsuit wasn't an easy call for the commissioner because it was a he said-she said case. But a jury unanimously believed Sanders' story, which ought to count for something. And if that's not enough for Stern, he should conduct his own investigation. If he simply leaves the Knicks and Thomas alone, he's implying that he's OK with Dolan being OK with this.

I got the dress code. The NBA has to sell its product to Corporate America. All it takes are a couple of police mug shots or an endlessly looped video of player brawls spilling into the expensive seats to undo a series of well-planned Powerpoint presentations in the boardroom, so the league wants its players to project a professional image whenever possible.

But this isn't just about portraying the NBA as a worthy recipient of money from sponsors and fans. It's about creating an environment that's fair to the very basis of the league: the players. If they're going to be held accountable for what they say, do or wear, the same criteria should apply to the members of the front office.

J.A. Adande joined ESPN.com as an NBA columnist in August 2007 after 10 years with the Los Angeles Times. Click here to e-mail J.A.

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