Sports Opinion & Analysis

Stern And The Spurs Punish All The Things

In NBA on December 14, 2012 at 5:25 pm

By Jeff Weyant

So Gregg Popovich rested four of his best players on the back-end of a four-games-in-five-nights road trip. He was also almost certainly thinking ahead to a home game 48 hours later against the division rival and conference powerhouse Memphis Grizzlies (a game they won in overtime – perhaps due to the fresh legs of their starters). David Stern, from his mighty throne, deemed the actions of the Spurs coach to be not only insubordination but also detrimental to the integrity of the league.

I’m not sure how everybody feels but a lot of people (myself included) laughed at the whole thing. Popovich, once again, trolled the entire (NBA-watching) world: the Spurs-Heat game was nationally-televised (and the only game on at all) so when Popovich pulled half of the marquee players it seemed like an intentional middle finger directed at the league office scheduling committee. To make matters worse, San Antonio was a Ray Allen Three away from beating the defending champions (one assumes Popovich’s troll grin got a lot bigger) and thus Miami, though victorious, became the laughingstock of the entire league.

For Stern, however, Popovich and the Spurs did more than just embarrass a group of players. In his mind, they hurt the image of the league as a whole. If Stern isn’t in complete control, the metaphorical stock of the company he runs takes a tumble. If the conversation surrounding Restgate is primarily about how resting players is dumb because games don’t matter in November, the stock falls further. And if nobody is in charge and people wake from their slumber before the TV on a Thursday night in November and decide the NBA isn’t worth watching until January, we’re heading for murky waters. Stern knows this. Popovich knows this. But Popovich doesn’t care (and it’s obvious whether he should).

Chuck Klosterman, as usual, summed it up impressively: “The NBA will always provide the illusion of competitiveness, which fans will unconsciously accept as viable entertainment. If you turn on an NBA game, you will see the game you expect (and will be able to pretend that it’s exactly the game you desire). You will get what you think you want, and any question over what that should (or should not) be will not factor into the occasion. And if it does, somebody will get fined $250,000.”

In other words, once people start wondering when NBA games matter, it’s all over. Games are only valuable if we decide they are and as soon as we begin that conversation the war is lost. So David Stern fined the San Antonio Spurs and their coach didn’t care and we all yelled various things at one another for a few days.

Which brings us to Stephen Jackson, whose recent situation presents an interesting parallel. Seemingly in response to several on court tussles between himself and Serge Ibaka (and potentially also in response to an on court tussle between Ibaka and Metta World Peace), the Spurs star tweeted out a message that, paraphrased, basically guaranteed that if “serg abaka” ever does anything like that to Jackson again, Jackson is going to do something physical (and presumably painful) in the region of Ibaka’s mouth. And if not for the interpretative efforts of the internet’s army of scribes and scholars, we might still be in the dark about what that means.

The Spurs organization, we have it on good authority, immediately went to the league office and asked whether they should punish Jackson or let Stern mete out his usual paycheck-siphoning fine. Stern opted for the latter and so (presumably in accordance with whatever arrangement the two parties came to) the San Antonio Spurs released an official statement condemning Captain Jack’s twittering and a few days later Stern announced that Jackson owed him $25,000.

What’s interesting is that Jackson was punished by the Spurs for the same reason the Spurs were punished by the NBA: Jackson, an employee of the Spurs (who are, essentially, an employee of the NBA), negatively impacted the image of his employer. To curb future infractions and to show that a “stern” hand steered the ship, a bill collector hounded Jackson and life went on as usual.

But make no mistake: it’s not that Jackson or Popovich did anything wrong under traditional, everyday morality (which assumes you’re somewhat okay, as I am, with Jackson telling Ibaka that unchecked aggression won’t go unanswered for very long). That’s not why they were punished. They were punished because their employers decided their actions hurt the image of their company.

But what does image matter? Well, people in this world have two valuable resources: their time and their money. Most businesses, unsurprisingly, want both and in large quantities. In addition, brand management is, for most CEOs, the most important aspect of running a successful company, and a large part of brand management concerns controlling the public image of the company as well as their various products. The National Basketball Association and the San Antonio Spurs are two such businesses. They have a vested interest in controlling and manipulating their public image because it impacts their bottom line.

Popovich made it seem like the inmates were running the asylum and also made audiences (who aren’t generally disposed to self-reflection) question their motives for sitting in front of the TV for three hours. According to himself and others, Jackson looked like a “thug.” And we probably don’t need any reminders that looking like a “thug” is the last thing teams and owners and front office personnel want for the NBA (but that’s another conversation altogether and involves tricky subjects like race, racism, prejudice, ignorance, etc.). Finally, it’s probably relevant that the official statement from R.C. Buford forcefully affirmed that Jackson’s actions “do not reflect the standards held by the San Antonio Spurs.”

Brand management is everything. The two businesses acted accordingly.

But I suppose the most important and difficult question to answer is how we as fans should feel. Some won’t appreciate Jackson’s intimations of frontier justice but I imagine those same people won’t really see any reason to make him pay restitution to an uninvolved party (after all, the NBA didn’t give that $25,000 to Serge Ibaka). Nevertheless, the size of the NBA is probably of interest to the people that watch games. The growth and popularity of the sport affects the quality of the product on the court. But I, like most human beings, am a little uncomfortable when a large, power-and-money hungry organization doles out its own form of justice to people who really didn’t do anything wrong in the conventional sense, the sense by which most of us lead our daily lives (for instance, if I were to tweet to whoever follows me that I might in the future after sufficient provocation punch my neighbor’s face, it’s unlikely anything would happen other than that my neighbor would no longer invite me to her Christmas party).

Sports are generally considered outside normal reality. The NBA, after all, is an artificially-constructed environment in which people try very hard to put an orange ball through a small hole. Which means that David Stern punishing Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs punishing Stephen Jackson are almost certainly good for the game but bad for everything else. As usual, I’m more inclined to focus on “everything else.” Sports are interesting and important and meaningful but reality must at some point intrude upon our illusion. Otherwise what’s the point of sports?

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