Saturday, May 19, 2007

Stern Gang Wrecks N.B.A. Playoffs

So much for sports taking one's mind off the relentless vulgarity of the political arena. This week saw N.B.A. Commissioner David Stern and the League's corporate executives, obsessed with what they fear is the negative image of their black-dominated sport, ruining the best playoff matchup of the year (between San Antonio and Phoenix) by suspending Phoenix's star center Amare Stoudemire, and his back-up Boris Diaw, for leaving the Phoenix bench and venturing onto the court after Robert Horry of the Spurs body-checked their teammate Steve Nash into the stands in the closing seconds of a playoff game the Spurs narrowly lost. N.B.A. rules require that players stay on the bench during any "altercation" on the court, on penalty of automatic suspension if they fail to do so. Unfortunately, this "zero tolerance" rule operates on the pretext that blacks are thuggish by nature and have to be harshly deterred from indulging their savage instincts. The N.B.A. suspends players retroactively for infractions viewed on game films that were not serious enough to capture the attention of the referees at the time they were committed, has banned Hip-Hop attire off the court, and this season increased its hyper-sensitivity in the application of technical fouls. Black men must be kept in their place.

The net result of the Stoudemire-Diaw suspension was to hand the series, and maybe the championship, to the Spurs, who may have been talented enough to win it without such help, but were far from guaranteed to do so. At the time the Horry incident occurred, the Suns were seconds removed from a stunning come-from-behind victory on San Antonio's home court, where the Spurs have been virtually unbeatable in recent years. With the series tied 2-2, there was every reason to believe it would take a nail-biting seventh game to decide the outcome, which it was in the League's best interest to have happen. But thanks to the N.B.A.'s zero intelligence rule, the Suns' hopes were immediately dashed, leaving them, the Spurs, and the fans with no way of knowing which of these outstanding teams was truly the best. This is how David Stern improves the N.B.A.'s public image?

In a telephone interview with ESPN Stern argued that Stoudemire and Diaw had only themselves to blame for their suspension, when in fact there was nothing preventing him from dumping the idiotic rule there and then. His ridiculous argument from precedent contends that because teams have previously been penalized by this arbitrary rule, therefore the Suns playoff hopes must be tossed into the trash can today. Stupid once, stupid forever. Maybe Stern should run for president.

The purpose of the stay-on-the-bench rule is obviously to prevent brawls on the court, not to to turn players into human barnacles. There is nothing inherently desirable about having players stay on the bench. In fact, some of them are peacemakers and help prevent violence during a flare-up on the court. But this matters not at all to the Stern Gang. As with so many other rules requiring "automatic" penalties, this case punished the innocent and allowed the guilty to determine the outcome of the series with a dirty play. The Suns' brilliant come-from-behind victory got almost no attention, the subsequent game was essentially forfeited to the Spurs, and the final game ended the series before the seventh game most people expected and the Suns very probably earned.

Yes, Stoudemire and Diaw knew the rule in advance and are responsible for getting caught up in the emotion of seeing their teammate manhandled by Horry. But that is exactly the point. Human beings are not machines, but creatures of emotion, and when core emotions are stimulated it is reflex that takes over. There is no more wisdom in requiring players to stay on the bench when a teammate is being physically abused than there is in requiring a parent to stay at work when their child is sick. Decent people will always run to the aid of one of their own, and it is foolish to penalize them for doing so.

The N.B.A.'s "automatic" suspension rule, like "zero tolerance" and "three strikes" in education and crime policy, is a walking advertisement of the stupidity of leaders who lack the wisdom for proper exercise of discretion, which neither can nor should be eliminated. There is not the slightest evidence that Stoudemire or Diaw intended any harm by leaving the bench, nor did they in fact commit any. This would have counted very much in their favor if the Stern Gang hadn't been already convinced justice can best be delivered by machine.

In the classic formulation of the officious bureaucrat who does not care what disastrous consequences follow from applying the rules, so long as they are uniformly enforced, N.B.A. Vice-President Stu Jackson conceded that the decision might not have been just, but was nevertheless "correct," a "no-brainer" in fact, which might even be a fair assessment, since the rule absolves Stern and Jackson of any responsibility to have or use brains. Both argue strictly from precedent: because the rule has ruined playoffs before, it must do so again. So let's bring back the Dred Scott decision in fairness to all the slaves who never had a day of freedom on this earth and were entitled to expect similar treatment for all their brethren down through the generations. Fair is fair.

Sadly, the Spurs' Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan dismissed suggestions that their victory was tainted, although it surely was, a fact implied by Horry himself earlier in the series. Steve Nash was forced to sit out for nearly the entire final minute of a razor close game due to a gash on his nose that would not stop bleeding. After the Spurs won, Horry conceded that Nash's brief absence while the game was being decided was a shame, that in fact it was always a shame when the best players were not on the court to insure that the best team won. But days later, when not chance, but League policy, was handing the Spurs a far less deserved victory, his teammates made no similar declaration, though one was badly needed. Instead, they mouthed platitudes about the suspensions being a "League matter" that affected the team in no essential way. In fact, Manu Ginobili went so far as to say that the Spurs were just as happy with their victory over the depleted Suns team as they would have been had they won with Stoudemire in the game, which is a sad commentary on the Spurs' competitive spirit, unless Ginobili was simply delivering a David Stern sound bite.

Even Stoudemire, who earlier in the series had called the Spurs a "dirty team" for kicking and kneeing their opponents, dismissed the affair as nothing more than a bad break. It is sad to witness people of enormous talent and wealth reduced to mouthing slogans that explain nothing and avoid the need to make an explicit value judgment. Only Steve Nash did so, saying he was "disgusted" with the League's decision and calling the rule "stupid." Exactly right.

Whether in sports or in society at large, non-discretionary enforcement policy is a foolish abdication of responsibility. Bad rules and bad laws should not be mechanically enforced, but overturned in favor of intelligent regulations. Had Stoudemire and Diaw left the bench to belt one of the Spurs players, their suspensions would have been justified. But the suspensions handed down by Stern were about as sensible as curing a headache by decapitation. Sure, it works, but the cure is far worse than the disease.

And in this case the only headache was the rule itself.