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Tuesday, November 21, 2006
 
A Revolution Against David Stern and Creeping Orwellianism?

Dictatorships are never popular, at least in hindsight. They always seem to crumble as people tire of losing their freedom and being told what to do. Perhaps that is why Victor Hugo once said,"When dictatorship is a fact, revolution is a right."

While events over the last week do not necessarily suggest a brewing "revolution" against NBA commissioner David Stern, they do indicate that professional sports' most powerful and arguably controlling commissioner may be headed for some rough waters. Here are some of the key events:

I. Nutrition, Power, and Going Around Collective Bargaining

As detailed by Liz Robbins in the New York Times, the National Basketball Players Association, without the permission or acquiescence of the NBA, has entered into a one-year promotional agreement with Abbott Nutrition. The terms of the deal are not terribly earth-shattering, but the motivations of the NBPA are: the NBPA is tired of the NBA unilaterally imposing rules, such as with the dress code and the new ball:
The union’s unilateral action — albeit over energy bars and protein shakes — comes as [NBPA Executive Director Billy] Hunter is voicing strong objections to the N.B.A.’s actions. He said he was frustrated that the league had not consulted the union on decisions ranging from the dress code to the new ball to the officials’ crackdown on complaining. If the agreement with EAS is not a pre-emptive strike, then it is a sign of an increasingly strained relationship between the union and the N.B.A.

“A lot of that has been precipitated by the league, the moves that the commissioner has decided to make and implement — many we feel are beyond scope of the collective bargaining agreement,” Hunter said. “At a minimum, we should have been consulted. As a result, maybe I feel less compelled to consult them on things.”

II. Working Conditions, Race, and Unfair Labor Charges

The NBA's insistence on using a new kind of basketball with different microfibers has drawn harsh rebuke from a number of players. Basically, a lot of players hate the feel of the new ball and believe it is hurting their game. But the NBA and Stern in particular believe the new ball looks nice and is a better visual. Henry Abbott over at True Hoop has all of the details.

Last week, Mitch Lawrence of the New York Daily News reported that the NBPA plans to file an unfair labor charge over this new ball. The gist of their beef is that the ball adversely affects their working conditions. Lawrence reports that the NBPA is also opposed to various other new rules implemented by the NBA without the players' consent. Some of the rules seem like they belong in George Orwell's 1984:
When the Knicks played the Wizards at the Garden last night, there was a newly assigned official who was at the arena for the expressed purpose of watching for players pulling their jerseys out of their pants when they came out of the game. As of this season, that move is illegal and subject to fines. Those same set of eyes were looking for players wearing rubber bands with their names on them. Anyone caught displaying those would be subject to a call from the league, with a warning to stop. That same spy was busy during the playing of "The Star-Spangled Banner," watching for players chewing gum and shifting as they stood in line, which have been outlawed . . .
Billy Hunter had some especially harsh words for Stern in Lawrence's piece:

"I've never seen a group of rules that has upset the whole group of players like these have. I normally have to really work on galvanizing the players for our next collective bargaining period. Not this time. I've heard from all the marquee ballplayers . . . Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash. Our guys are feeling stifled."

"The image problem is a subtle way of talking about black ballplayers and how they appear to the populace. When we had our last round of negotiations, David told me that he was consulting with one of President Bush's political consultants. The issue was, what they can do to make the game and players more appealing to the red states?"
As reported in this week's Street and Smith's Sports Business Journal, agent Bill Strickland seems to agree with Hunter that Stern has too much unilateral power: “I definitely think he has too much power. ... We’ve had situations where we’ve talked about freedom of speech issues relative to tattoos and content of responses to questions postgame, so I don’t think there’s any question about it."

III. NBA Owners Growing Tired of Stern's Unilateralism

The greatest challenge to Stern might come from within. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, when Charlotte Bobcats owner Robert Johnson--arguably one of the most respected and successful businesspersons in America--challenged Stern at the latest Board of NBA governors meeting, Stern "went ballistic." Here are the details:
The muzzling of Mark Cuban by the NBA did not go over unanimously at the recent Board of Governors meeting. We hear Bobcats owner Bob Johnson, while not necessarily leaping to Cuban's defense, did ask David Stern if such draconian measures - giving the Commish the power to suspend any owner who disparages the league publicly - were in everyone's best interests. And shouldn't this be handled by a committee of owners instead of by Stern alone?

Then, according to two sources, when Johnson further suggested that this was a personal matter between Cuban and Stern that the two of them should settle, Stern went ballistic, telling Johnson that this was a league matter, not an individual one, and that the value of investments such as Johnson's $300 million to get the Charlotte expansion franchise were hurt when Cuban constantly belittled the on-court product. In the end, Stern got his way.

Will Stern be ousted? There is no tangible evidence, but his recent behavior suggests that his dictatorial powers might have gone too far. Embarrassing Bob Johnson in front of his fellow owners was probably not a good idea and will seemingly have some consequences down-the-line.

No matter the outcome, it's good to see the NBPA become more vigilant in protecting the players' interests. The conclusion of my article The Reckless Pursuit of Dominion: A Situational Analysis of the NBA and Diminishing Player Autonomy, 8 University of Pennsylvania Journal of Labor & Employment Law 819 (2006) advocates such an approach. We'll see how far they are willing to fight.

Update: See True Hoop, Jones on the NBA, RaptorsAddict, and PistonsForum, for some thoughtful reactions. Also see the comments below, which are terrific (and thank you all for taking the time to comment, it is much appreciated).





13 Comments:

A couple of things come to mind.

First, Hunter is not a particularly honest person and his disinguousness is pretty darn common knowledge. It's like the ACLU- everything he says has an ulterior motive.

Second, a lot of this is based on third hand reporting. How about some quotes from the "marquee" players.

Look, if the players and their union continues to want to insist on the gansta, bling-bling, hip-hop, ho on every arm identity as the means to "sell" the NBA product, then the NBA's reputation will continue to circle the bowl and float out to sea. While I may not always agree with Stern, he's the #1 reason players make what they do. It's like biting the hand that feeds them.

What a bunch of babies. Starting with Hunter.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 11/21/2006 6:35 PM  


Rather than looking at David Stern as a dictator or bad man, wouldn't it be prudent to take the approach of praising this man for his ability to take personal responsibility and control over a league in which the union insists on a gangsta, bling-bling, hip-hop persona? Or, is it easier to take the approcach (from a critical academic point of view) that he is a dictator? I would say that it takes more guts to write about the former (that he is doing so much good by "imposing" as sense of civility).

Anonymous Anonymous -- 11/21/2006 6:45 PM  


Blazer Prophet

It seems that the "bling-bling, hip-hop" identity you describe is highly profitable in other segments of the economy, why can't it be as profitable here? If a team's owner has no problem with the image of his team or players ala Bob Johnson, why not let him market his team and players how he wants. These are highly accomplished business men who own teams, I think they know how to make a profit without someone telling them.

I hardly think Stern is the #1 reason players make what they do and would challenge you to back up such an assertion.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 11/21/2006 6:47 PM  


To Anonymous #2: The reason it is less likely to be economically successful here is simply this. The stands at NBA games are predominently made up of people who are NOT part of the hip-hop gangsta culture. And the customers are the ones who foot the bill for the humongous guaranteed contracts.

The same goes for TV audiences. If hip-hop/gangsta shows were able to corral the top ratings in TV, then shows like Seinfeld would never have made it for all those years and Moiesha and whatever other sitcoms WB Network tried to put over on the audiences would be the pop culture icons of this society. The fact is, they are not!

That may not be the inclusive/politically correct position to take, but it happens to correlate with something called "reality".

David Stern is indeed a megalomaniacal control freak who has the upper hand in a labor/management dynamic for the moment. He will eventually go so far overboard in his actions that he loses his grip and the pendulum will then swing wildly to the other side of the spectrum. And then it will swing back again...

That's the nature of life in a conflict environment.

Anonymous The Sports Curmudgeon -- 11/21/2006 10:02 PM  


Sports Curmudgeon

Your right, Bob Johnson didn't make about $3 billion dollars catering/serving the needs of African Americans. Clearly, the hip-hop culture can't produce a product that America would be interested in.

I think you are the one that needs to take a look at "reality."

Anonymous Anonymous -- 11/21/2006 10:53 PM  


the sports curmudgeon

Please tell me you aren't serious with your argument. As Anon 10:53 mentioned, the Johnson made billions marketing hip-hop culture. The truth of the matter is he made those billions catering to a mostly white audience (up to 70% of rap cd sales are from white people). So while you may not like it (I am assuming you're a older white male), your children are eating it up for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 11/22/2006 9:08 AM  


Regardless, we know that corporate America, the suits "emphasis on suits", are the ones that dish out the big bucks to the games.
Plus whats the big deal to look respectful, or to not yell and curse, and to not wave around guns at strip clubs. This isnt about black or white, this is about whats deemed respectful in the USA.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 11/22/2006 9:55 AM  


Anon 9:55

If it's not black and white, then why does the NFL get a complete free bass on all of it's issues? Cursing and yelling? Issues with guns? Being respectful? Have you been to an NFL game? The NFL has much more of a problem with it's players getting into off-field issues, but nobody says a word. While it's true that the majority of NFL players are black, the nature of the sport (pads, full length uni's, and wearing a helmet) does not have their "blackness" out in full view for the world to see. MLB with it's rampant steriod abuse and endemic cheating ingrained into the game (Kenny Rogers anyone)?

Also, to be quite frank, professional sports are not corporate America. It's nothing like it. In corporate America, everyone can be replaced. These men are entertainers, without whom the league could not/would not exist. Is it asking too much for the union to be consulted on issues such as changing the ball they use? Imagine MLB arbitrarily changing the baseball from rawhide to some synthetic material without consulting anyone.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 11/22/2006 10:48 AM  


Anon. 10: 48
Well I'll start by aying that I think the new ball thing is a joke, and needs to be changed back. However, I dont look at the issues as black and white, I htink it is hip-hop vs. I do not know what you would call it. I am not if you were the anon. before who gave us the quote about 70% of rap is bought by white people, but that shuold prove the point it is not about white and black but a clash of cultures.
If you dont think corporate America is the people that Stern is trying to appease, than who is he.
As for the NFL vs. NBA and MLB;
Kenny Rogers got ripped, the whole steroids things got ripped, people are holding baseball to a much a higher standard then both. Football, everyone has already given up on and that may be why they get a free pass.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 11/22/2006 2:15 PM  


Ayatollah Stern is way off base here. What made the NBA great in its hey-day was the individuals who played the game. Magic, Bird, Jordan. Those guys made the NBA great.

Stern seems to want to clamp down on individualism and sell the product. No individual is bigger than the game. But in doing so the NBA will lose what sets it apart from the other leagues. Tony Romo could walk into any room right now and I would have no idea who he was (unless Jessica Simpson was on his arm but then I wouldn't really care he was in the room). The NBA gives us up close shots of players as individuals but Stern seems to want to eliminate any individuality. Not so sure it is such a great idea on his part.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 11/22/2006 5:36 PM  


Let's set the record straight. I am indeed Caucasian; I am indeed older than most of the folks who have embraced hip-hop culture as the most significant thing to happen in the last 15 minutes.

Yes indeed, Bob Johnson did make a bunch of money with BET catering to that demographic.

Now, name all the other folks who made that kind of money in that kind of way and then compare all those folks to people who made LOTS more money by following different socio-economic trends such as:

Warren Buffet
Bill Gates
Steve Jobs
Jack Welch
Sam Walton (RIP)
You Get The Idea Here.

The fact that one man made a whole lot of money on hip-hop culture does not make that demographic the only or even the best way to make money.

The NBA needs to attract audiences to its games and viewers to its telecasts to make money. The more of them that they attract, the more likely they are to get huge corporate sponsorship dollars for advertising/promotions/partnerships/naming rights.

Now, take a deep breath and deal with some reality here - - most, not all but most, of the big time corporations that will spend tens of millions of dollars on NBA "sponsorships" are looking to make money on a demographic base far wider than the hip-hop culture base. So, if the NBA is being "business smart" it will try to tailor its image toward those kinds of corporate interests.

Or, it could try to follow the BET business model which worked for one company to the tune of about $4B. But divided among 30 teams, $4B isn't all that much. It wouldn't even buy a single struggling franchise. The value of NBA franchises today totals about $10B and to grow that business takes a customer base that has lots of "discretionary spending power". That's the customer that has to look favorably on the NBA.

It has nothing to do with race; it has to do with "money to be spent". Sure, young folks can spend lots of money on their icons. But those numbers are dwarfed by what the NBA might get by appealing to other demographics.

Having said all of that, I still think David Stern is a megalomaniacal control freak who has gone overboard...

Anonymous The Sports Curmudgeon -- 11/22/2006 10:49 PM  


It seems that many people are falling into the trap of associating the NBA with hip-hop just because the majority of players are Black. When it comes down to the business of the NBA, Stern's been very uneven lately. The way he has implemented these new rule changes is dictatorial and he's creating discord with the owners and the players. But the idea that it cleans up the image of the league totally sends the wrong message to the viewer. I don't have a problem with the NBA's image. I may be a Black male but I watch basketball because I like it. When the Phoenix Suns play I watch. Creating that type of loyalty is the duty of the individual owners in their target markets.

But the NBA doesn't seem to want to sell the teams. They want people to idolize their stars and buy endless supplies of jerseys and shoes. The NBA has been majority Black for a long time and saying the league has image problem now is absurd. They had coke busts and league bans in he 80s and 90s. I think the issue they are confused on is how to sell basketball to a football audience. Bigger stadiums, bigger fanbase on every level of play, shorter season, more violence. Marketing the sport to white people is a red herring because I'm sure if you did demographic study of who attends basketball games the numbers haven't changed much over Stern's tenure. High ticket prices put poorer audiences in front of the TV. So just look at the ads during an NFL game and an NBA game. With football, we've been bombarded with 'This is our country' truck ads and 'Man Laws' for beer drinkers. With the NBA we get D Wade and Barkley hocking cell phones. The NBA doesn't have an image problem. The NBA's audience is an urban audience, meaning city dwellers with urban sensibilities. The NBA clearly needs a leader who understands that fact, who understands the players and can take the game in a new direction. The NBA needs a Black commissioner.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 11/24/2006 3:14 PM  


thank you

Anonymous kurtlar -- 2/13/2009 11:32 AM  


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