NBA Commissioner David Stern isn't all he's cracked up to be.

The stadium scene.
Feb. 13 2009 4:30 PM

King NBA

What's with the overpraise for pro basketball commissioner David Stern?

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It's little noted that Stern has presided over three lockouts in his time, only one of which cost the league any games. In this, as in everything else, his timing has been impeccable. He took over the NBA at a cultural moment when public figures were judged by the quality of their salesmanship, and a league once run by lawyers has slowly given way to a league run by marketers. (His deputy and presumptive replacement, Adam Silver, once headed up the NBA's entertainment division.) And he has used his marketing savvy to great advantage over the years, most notably in spreading the hoop-ish gospel to all corners of the globe without much chest-thumping, a smiling sort of soft imperialism. (Stern now receives almost exclusive credit for the globalization of the game, which ignores the early inroads laid by O'Brien and even NBA Players Association General Counsel Larry Fleisher, whose sons Marc and Eric, both agents, took up the cause in the late 1980s after their father's death and imported Vlade Divac and Sarunas Marciulionis from overseas. It could also reasonably be argued that the collapse of the Soviet Union and its sports system cracked the game wide open, which means that Vaclav Havel is at least partly to blame for Nikoloz Tskitishvili.)

It's Stern's keen instinct for marketing both himself and his policies that have kept him from the public shaming you'd expect to greet a three-lockout commish. During the labor strife of the 1990s, which centered on the league's efforts to close the myriad loopholes in the salary cap and wrap its arms around the galactic piles of TV and licensing money that few could have envisioned in 1983, Stern and the owners devised a public relations strategy around the twin Selig-ian ideas that the league was hurting for money (it wasn't) and that its players were a bunch of loutish and entitled greedheads with little stake in the game itself ("Nasty, Brutish Athletes," as a Wall Street Journal op-ed put it). This was an easy sell so soon after baseball's vaporized 1994 season. "If a young player blows off practice, he knows the worst that can happen is that the club will fine him. … But what if he makes so much, he doesn't care?" Phoenix Suns executive Cotton Fitzsimmons toldSports Illustrated, which seemed to appreciate the notion of bringing "to heel ... the league's whining young players."

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The league emerged from that lockout holding one of the more absurdly management-friendly CBAs in sports, on the strength of such collusive provisions as the maximum contract (something is seriously amiss when you have both Stephon Marbury and the Sherman Act arrayed convincingly against you). The cost-saving mechanisms built in to the 1999 agreement have cosseted Stern from criticism that he has failed to diversify and modernize the NBA's revenue streams much beyond ticket sales and Dazzling Dunks and Basketball Bloopers, the way Major League Baseball has with its wildly successful digital media arm.

The NBA commissioner has a uniquely difficult job. Nowhere else in sports does a commissioner have to hawk his game to the very suburban reactionaries who would turn it into a straw man for their own demographic nightmares. There has been a lot of glib talk in recent weeks that Stern has removed race from the conversation. In reality, he has merely sent it underground, where it burbles beneath everything from an official NBA magazine airbrushing out Allen Iverson's tattoos to the Pacers-Pistons brawl to the league's cynical and patronizing minimum-age rule.

Stern is by all accounts one of the few real liberals in the industry, and he has expressed misgivings over the shabby treatment of his players in the public square. But he has also implicitly accepted the premise of these retrograde grumblings about the NBA. We're now in the third season of the league's dress code, which mandates that players wear "business casual" attire whenever engaged in league activities and which the New York Times identified as part of "the NBA's latest push to look a little less gangsta and a little more genteel." This was pretty transparently a response to what everyone innocently called, in the wake of the Pacers-Pistons fight, the league's "image problem," as if it had sprouted organically from the floorboards of the Palace of Auburn Hills.

"We have a minimum standard that we set that reflects on the professionalism of our sport," Stern told reporters, presenting his plan as the harmless sort of policy any company might adopt. Behind the scenes, he enforced the code with almost creepy vigor—the league initially determined compliance by photographing players as they entered and left the arena, fining them as warranted. It was vintage Stern. He had pandered to the wide reactionary streak in basketball's audience that his handling of the lockout doubtlessly exacerbated. And he was rewarded with yet another piece of player autonomy, something that basketball's authorities have felt, in the 25 years since Larry O'Brien left the boardroom, has been theirs to take.

Tommy Craggs is the editor-in-chief of Deadspin.