A parade of relatively unknown, overweight 20-somethings hugging Roger Goodell on a podium was far more compelling television than LeBron James competing in the playoffs.
And yet no one will blame David Stern for this predictable occurrence. He will forever be lauded as the Pete Rozelle of basketball by the vast array of media members he controls.
This year, Eric Fisher and Luke Joeckel, a pair of offensive tackles, played the role of Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin, a pair of All-American quarterbacks, powering the NFL Draft’s Thursday prime-time coverage to an easy ratings landslide over the NBA playoffs. More than three times as many people watched Fisher and Joeckel waddle to their commissioner photo-op as witnessed LBJ torch the Milwaukee Bucks.
Hope, no matter how its packaged, sells in America. In a column over the weekend, my good friend and thought-provoking Miami Herald columnist Dan Le Batard mocked the NFL’s annual garage sale of hope. Le Batard cleverly insinuated the NFL Draft is false hope, claiming it’s more lottery ticket than scholarship to an Ivy League school. He used New England’s sixth-round selection of Tom Brady as proof.
There are kernels of truth in Le Batard’s supposition. But I had a different takeaway from Goodell’s highly successful transformation of the first round of the draft into a consistent primetime, ratings-grabbing event.
Goodell and his predecessor Paul Tagliabue have done a better job of keeping the NFL consistent with patriotic American themes than David Stern has done with the NBA.
There is nothing more American than hope, the belief that a mixed-race kid raised by his grandparents in Hawaii can elevate himself to the presidency. If that is possible, why shouldn’t Jets fans hope that Geno Smith is the next Joe Namath, or at the very least the next Luck, RG3 or Russell Wilson, rookie QBs who led their teams to the playoffs?
In America, hope isn’t a debilitating intoxicant. It is the mortar at the foundation of this country.
American Idol sells false hope. The NFL, with its revenue-sharing, salary cap and its replenishing offseason of free agency and draft of properly developed prospects, is American capitalism at its highest level. Is it perfect? No. The draft prospects are exploited by NCAA-mandated shamateurism and an NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement that restricts their entry into the professional ranks.
But America does not promise perfection. It promises the right to pursue it.
And that is why I fault Commissioner Stern for the NBA’s inability to gain ground on the NFL since Michael Jordan left Chicago. Stern’s NBA hasn’t pursued perfection. It has fallen to its knees and begged for the next Michael Jordan. Its prayers have been answered. But not even King James can fix what’s wrong with basketball.
Among other things, the NBA is short on hope. You can name the tiny handful of title contenders before the start of each season. First-round playoff upsets were virtually eliminated 10 years ago when the format was changed to best-of-seven series. The one-and-done era of college basketball undermined the relevance and hope-restoring impact of the NBA Draft. The Oklahoma City Thunder, who should be a symbol of hope, had to rid themselves of a young star solely for financial reasons.
Basketball is broken. It is underachieving. And yet David Stern is in such high regard that he got to install his successor, deputy commissioner Adam Silver. What’s worse is that there is no media or public pressure to fix what is broken in basketball.
As I’ve mentioned in previous columns, basketball is suffering from a lack of synergy. High school basketball fans hate summer basketball. College basketball fans hate the NBA. Professional basketball fans think college basketball sucks. The NBA and its commissioner should be at the forefront in addressing these issues and others, and there should be intense media and public pressure for the commissioner to do so.
The media hounded college football executives to improve its postseason. There was a constant drumbeat outlining the alleged stupidity of the men running college football. The drumbeat sounded very similar to the one alleging Stern’s genius.
I like and respect David Stern. He has been a good, not great, commissioner. His failure can equally be laid at the feet of the media he controls. The media have failed Stern in a way that we have not failed Goodell.
There is media, public and player pressure on Goodell to perform at all times. He is a favorite media whipping boy. We routinely shred him for his abuse of power. He is publicly criticized — and even despised — by his player constituents. NFL fans boo him partially because they’re upset with his efforts to make football safer.
Roger Goodell is a distrusted leader. He is paid a ridiculous salary for suffering the vitriol and being asked to lead amid all the noise. This is healthy. It’s American. It’s why he’s producing superior results to Stern. Goodell vs. Stern is a case study in the superiority of democracy over dictatorship and communism.
We are free to hold Goodell accountable for his mistakes. There is a price to pay for questioning Stern.
Football replaced baseball as king in this country because Rozelle and his successors packaged their superior, more exciting product in the same wrapping as baseball, and then Rozelle perfected the business model and NFL Films perfected the propaganda.
Football is mom and apple pie. Tom Brady is Joe DiMaggio. Revenue sharing not only allows the Green Bay Packers to compete with the New York Giants but it renders the Los Angeles market unnecessary. Rozelle, Paul Tagliabue and Goodell fostered a partnership with the NFLPA and Gene Upshaw that directly led to the league’s dominance of the sports world. Without this partnership, football would likely have the same synergy problems as basketball. The NFL Draft would be a non-event similar to the NBA’s.
It’s easy and inaccurate to ascribe the NBA’s relative lack of relevance and traction to its reliance on African-American and foreign-born players. That’s a copout. If managed and packaged in themes consistent with traditional American values, sports fans would love all of the NBA the way they once loved Michael Jordan.
It’s David Stern’s fault LeBron James took a backseat to a Central Michigan offensive lineman most people had never heard of until Jay Glazer identified him as the No. 1 pick 24 hours before the draft.