National Signing Day – - Why The Fuss?

“National Signing Day” came and went yesterday – - thankfully. For reasons beyond my comprehension, many folks pay lots of attention to where a bunch of high school football players chooses to go to college to play football. Multiple hundreds of these kids are tracked and rated and projected by fanboys to be superstars. Many of them will play; few will excel; some will never be heard about again. Talk about mining low grade ore… National Signing Day demonstrates the vigor of hope within the basic human spirit; this event celebrates expectation in the face of experience.

The NFL Draft is sort of like the next step up from National Signing Day. The NFL Draft is also hugely overblown but a far higher fraction of the players drafted actually does something for the team selecting them than happens as a result of National Signing Day.

By the way, on this date in 1631, Roger Williams arrived in New England. His piano would not arrive until six months later.

This week we learned that Bud Selig made more than $18M last year as the Commissioner of MLB. Naturally, the segment of the media best described as the “Bud Is A Boob Crowd” was outraged. I am outraged too but for a different reason. I am outraged because that puts Bud Selig in an earnings category reserved for the very few best players in the game. Bud Selig is not a boob and he is not a bad person and he is not a bad commissioner; nonetheless, he does not contribute to the game of baseball at the level of truly elite players. His salary offends me as much as theirs do.

In addition, people then had to compare Selig’s salary to the other commissioners. He makes $7M more than Roger Goodell; to me, that means he is even more overpaid than is Goodell; both are overpaid. Gary Bettman supposedly makes $6M a year; I can arrange for the NHL to have their games televised on a network that no one can find in their cable system for 10% of that figure. In my mind, Selig is clearly worth three times whatever Bettman gets.

However, when Selig’s salary was compared to the $10M that David Stern earns, many of the media felt it necessary to opine that Stern was seriously underpaid because Stern was the best commissioner of a major sport that ever was. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is where I get off the bus…

I think that a large segment of the US media hugely overvalues David Stern. Let me be clear; I do not think he is a boob; I do not think that he is incompetent. I do think that David Stern has been “in the right place at the right time” and that, on balance, he has done no harm to the NBA. Beyond that, feh!

Many media acolytes credit David Stern for the NBA’s popularity boom in the 1980s and 90s. I believe that he was merely along for the ride. Those same media acolytes often say that he took the NBA from a truly minor status in the 1970s – playoffs were shown on tape delay then – to a premier status in the 80s and 90s. I think that is hogwash.

Check the timeline here, but David Stern did not become commissioner of the NBA until February 1984. By the time his fanny hit the commissioner’s chair, Dr. J was in the twilight of his career, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson had been in the league for about 4 years, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was still playing well and the NBA had gotten past its “tape-delay” status several years ago. Things were looking up for the NBA when Stern took the helm.

Now comes the evidence of being “in the right place at the right time”. In the late spring of 1984, mere weeks after David Stern took over, the Lakers and Celtics played one of their epic matchups in the NBA Finals – Bird versus Magic with supporting casts to include Kareem and McHale and … Then in the NBA Draft in the summer of 1984, the incoming class included Hakeem Olajuawon, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and John Stockton (listed in the order they were drafted).

Now hear this. David Stern had nothing whatsoever to do with that fantastic NBA Final series nor did he have a single thing to do with that class of draftees. They happened; the NBA flourished and David Stern went along for the ride. If David Stern is a great commissioner because he happened to be in the league with players like Jordan and Magic and Bird, then should he be considered a horrendous commissioner because he was also in the league with referee Tim Donaghy? None of this makes David Stern a bad person by any means; it also does not make him a great commissioner.

On the negative side of David Stern’s ledger, please consider the expansions and the relocations that have happened on his watch. If he can go along for the ride on the upside with Jordan and Magic and Bird, he can also go along for the ride with a league that now has teams in very tenuous markets such as Charlotte, Memphis (née Vancouver), New Orleans (née Charlotte), Oklahoma City (née Seattle) and Sacramento (née Kansas City). In good economic times, these markets are borderline; in the current economic climate, they will be a drain on the league. Do not be surprised if one or more of these teams has to move in the next two years to stay afloat.

Oh, and do not forget the hugely unsuccessful ventures that David Stern’s NBA embarked upon during his watch. Perhaps he merely acquiesced to the idea of starting the Developmental League, but it happened on his watch and it has grown into nothing that is even interesting. In no way can anyone think that the WNBA happened over David Stern’s objection; he has been front and center as its staunchest supporter from the beginning. In the very good economic times, the WNBA lost money every year, survived because the NBA bankrolled those losses and tried to make itself appear to be viable by lying about its attendance.

The NBA All-Star Game is coming up very soon. David Stern will be out there for media coverage and many will fawn over him and tell you that he is a great commissioner. When you hear that, ask yourself why none of these “problem areas” ever seems to come up in the discussions…

By the way, can anyone confirm for me that there was a time when dribbling was actually necessary in an NBA game and that there was a violation known as “traveling” whereby a whistle sounded and the ball was given to the other team? I think I recall something like that…

Finally, Scott Ostler has this comment in the SF Chronicle that relates to the expectations of the NBA Draft compared to its reality:

“If the Warriors, as some suggest, are tanking in order to get a high draft pick, it will be worth it if they land Davidson’s Stephen Curry. He would be an instant NBA sensation … once the Warriors draft him, sit him on the bench, ship him to the NBA Developmental League, and trade him for a 6-foot-5 small forward.”

But don’t get me wrong, I love sports…

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  • Phil  On February 5, 2009 at 12:33 pm

    I’ve often wondered about the NBA and their enforcement of the traveling rule. Why do you think it is not enforced since it relates to a main skill that makes basketball unique? Also, if the NBA has not deemed it important, why not change the rules regarding it? I assume their refs are still trained to make calls based on the rulebook.

  • The Sports Curmudgeon  On February 5, 2009 at 2:20 pm


    My mother-in-law used to say that you should never ruin a good story with the facts.

    My opinion here is that the NBA does not want to ruin “highlight quality plays” with trivialities such as traveling.

    I think they don’t want to eliminate the traveling rule because it would change the entire fabric of the game and I don’t think the NBA wants to be anywhere near that “radical”. I believe that NBA referees are trained to make calls based on the rulebook AND on the “other book” that interprets the rulebook. That “other book” is difficult to get your hands on…

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