Wednesday, October 31, 2007

David Stern couldn’t be happier its time to Hoop it Up

The 2007-08 National Basketball Association tipped off last night. NBA commissioner had to breathe a sigh of relief when he was a part of the San Antonio Spurs ring and banner ceremony. Stern was forced to deal with a number of off season issues that directly slammed the image of the league. The summer began with a former NBA referee admitting he had worked with bookies to fix the point spread of NBA games, and ended with NBA Hall of Fame member and New York Knicks coach Isiah Thomas facing a sexual discrimination lawsuit.

Last week one issue Stern made clear to the media during his pre-season press conference – there hasn’t been any collateral damage (according to Stern) from the fallout from the tough off-season the league was forced to deal with, and it hasn’t impacted the league’s credibility.

“Not even sponsors, no. Not even you, actually. I think there are lots of questions about subjects, about the Knicks, about refereeing, about Donaghy. In a certain way, that's par for the course. I don't think I've ever had, on a conference call like this, when someone has told us tell us how good it's going to be, how great things are.

“So I don't think we've had to defend, what was the word you used, our credibility?”

So is David Stern just avoiding the issue or does he really believe the NBA is Teflon proof?

“This is a league that, as I said in an earlier press conference, we've dealt with, you know, we were going to be out of business when Larry and Magic retired, then when Michael retired, when drugs was an issue, when race was an issue, when HIV was an issue.

“We're here, and we plan to not only be here but we're here as successful as I think we've ever been and actually with some huge issues that we're in the process of working through. So it's never easy. But I think the people that are gathered here working at the NBA are clearly up to it.”

The good news – while Stern wants to move forward (David Stern is always in control when he’s dealing with the media) he didn’t attempt to ignore the Donaghy issue and did admit the NBA’s policy of not allowing NBA officials to visit casinos was outdated.

“Here is where we are in that investigation. Number one, the current state of the record is that Mr. Donaghy acted alone. There are no other referees that betted on NBA games.

“Number two, to the extent that we have a very broad rule that says you can't do anything could be read to include lotteries, golf, poker, including the poker game that's conducted annually at the NBA training camp. Someone has probably stepped across the line amongst all of our officials. But the reality is that about half of our officials have told us that they've been into casinos in the course of the last several years. And actually I have made a decision not to discipline them because I think the rule is overly broad. Of course, I take full responsibility for having been responsible for its enactment. I'm the CEO. I think its enforcement leaves something to be desired.

“So while we reenact while we look at our rules completely and come up with a new set of rules, which I think is going to allow casino gambling at certain times of the year, I've decided that the better view here is to take my medicine and take it's not the right thing to do, to slap these guys on the wrists. I know they probably shouldn't have done it. They know they probably shouldn't have done it. But I'm not happy with the overall situation of an overbroad rule, spotty enforcement and reinforcement. We give the yearly pep talk about not gambling, and that's it until training camp next year. We've got to decide what to do. We've got to decide to do it firmly, fully throughout the year and have consequences based upon thorough follow up, enforcement and detection.

“You know, I've been discussing this with Lamell McMorris, the head of the referees association. . We're on the same page. We want our referees to have clear sets of rules that are not overly broad and that are enforced and well understood. So that's where that is.

“We're retaining yet new and additional betting experts. We are revamping our entire security investigations, making them deeper and broader. We are developing a wide array of statistical screens that we will use prospectively after the investigation is over with Mr. Donaghy as we seek to use statistics to detect signs that something may be amiss.

“I'm having trouble reading my own handwriting. That's why I'm faltering here.

“We are going to post, relatively soon, each day the referees who are working that night's games so that we can eliminate some advance knowledge or secretive whatever edge that someone might have in knowing who the referees are. We're going to rework our work rules with respect to cell phone conduct and the like because we have rules about not using the cell phones in the locker room that were not particularly well enforced either.

“We're really now in the process of revamping all of our rules to make sure we have ones that work and that they're both highly reinforced and well enforced. And we also are going to be how shall I say this… what Stu Jackson was telling our owners, our referees are being strongly encouraged both to have better interaction with our players and coaches alike and be accessible. The league will be much more forthcoming with respect to telling the world when our referees make a mistake. That will be often. We'll probably keep it until important situations, but it will be often because only 92% of our calls are correct. We have these things called humans making the calls. The referees are okay with that. We're going to be working together with them to take the best officials in sports and just make them that much better.

“That's the refereeing sort of short position, although I'm looking here to see if I left anything out.”

But that said – David Stern is well aware at least at the start of the 2007-08 season, the league’s credibility (visa-vie) its officials could be on the line.

“I take that right away from our fans. It's a time honored tradition. Even in your asking of the question, I got, I want to push back at you a little bit. Let's separate things out, okay? I mean, Donaghy is a criminal who did bad things. There's an entire set of issues that we have to deal with with respect to gambling and the like. Let's not conflate that with issues about the competence of our officials or not. You can have what opinions you may have on that. But I choose to separate criminal conduct, just as I don't start my phone calls with you asking about Jason Blair and how it affects your reputation as a reporter or the like. I'm interested now.

“Now the second point is that we think we do have to continue to improve our officiating and demonstrate that we're improving it. So with that, we've retained Bernie Fryer, just recently retired crew chief, to work with crew chiefs to make them better mentors because we got a sense from talking with and to our younger officials that they wanted more and better training, and we wanted to respond to that.

“We're going to find more time for Ronnie Nunn to spend more time with officials on development. Indeed, because of the statistics and the like, because there's so much else to do with refereeing on the one hand, dealing with the international and national basketball community on the other, I've been discussing with Stu Jackson the splitting of the jobs between refereeing on the one hand and its supervision and basketball operations on the other and its supervision. By the time we got through discussing it, Stu and I agreed it was a good idea. Stu, given the choice, decided when that happens, which could be anywhere from weeks to more likely months, he will be doing the basketball side of it, which will be actually a very large job because in our last trip to China I announced our intention to consider a league in China and a variety of other initiatives such as working with the NCAA with respect to youth basketball, all that the NBA's role should be, not to mention USA basketball, the Hall of Fame. That's one side. And on the refereeing side, we've got to make an entirely new use of statistics and reformulate, as I've told you, a variety of rules and procedures that both improve our referees' competence, make their play calling and mistakes more available and transparent and improve their relationships with the players and the coaches, and make the good job they do more understandable to our fans.

“We're out there working on all three fronts. I would say that's different and apart from Mr. Donaghy, the criminal.”

The officials issue aside – what should be of greater concern Stern’s reaction or lack thereof in the sexual discrimination lawsuit the put the New York Knicks on the back pages (where sports resides) and on the front pages of New York’s many newspapers.

“Where it stands is it's currently on appeal. We discussed it. I reported on it to the owners at the meeting that we just finished. My own focus was to make sure as a league that we become sensitized to the issue, that we have a policy league wide with respect to training sensitivity and what constitutes and doesn't harassment, and that we set minimum standards and make sure that through our human resources department we assist our teams in doing it and make sure that they do it.

“With respect to the Knicks, it was really just a status quo. I have the power to do certain things. I don't know exactly I don't have anything in mind. I don't know whether I will do anything. But pending appeal, pending what will be further analysis of the situation, nothing has changed.”

An interesting perspective from the Commissioner – Stern knows he can do something but he doesn’t seem to know what that is – except sit on the fence. But a fairer point-of-view – with Thomas and the Madison Square Garden appealing the $11 million judgment, legally, can Stern do anything right now?

“I think that the subject is one that deserves attention, and that we have been doing it. I think that we're leading the charge in terms of equal opportunity employment and the like. But I think that I also believe in something akin to due process and trials taking their normal course, including appeals.

“Also, how shall I say this, what went on there is not without contest. I'm sure you wouldn't want to prematurely judge it. So that's my concern. And I recognize that there are people who are going to, and have, called me to task for that. But, you know, just because an action or inaction is unpopular doesn't mean that it's wrong.”

Those sentiments aside, Tuesday during an interview with ESPN David Stern offered a significant and pointed criticism of the Knicks.

Stern told ESPN: “It demonstrates that they’re not a model of intelligent management. There were many checkpoints along the way where more decisive action would have eliminated this issue.”

Knicks owner James Dolan facing an $11.6 million payout if MSG’s appeal of the lawsuit fails was quick to react to Stern’s comments; releasing the following statement.

“We have high regard for the commissioner,” Dolan said. “Right now, what we can all agree on is that the best thing for the Knicks is to get on the court and win some basketball games.”

Three reasons David Stern MUST do something when (and if) Thomas and MSG fail in their appeal. Firstly, David Stern acts with an iron fist in dealing with the players when it comes to discipline. Any miss-step is met with a suspension. How will Stern be able to bring the hammer down on NBA players if he doesn’t treat a member of the management side when they force his hand? How does David Stern believe women’s groups will react long-term to the NBA if the league doesn’t deal with Thomas when and if his appeal fails? And finally what would the ramifications be towards the future of the WNBA (and once and if) Thomas and MSG’s appeal fails?

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom

Labels: , , , , , ,