Sunday , Dec , 16 , 2007 C.Y. Ellis

Suns Haters, Beware! Logic Ahead!

As an unabashed and self-proclaimed Suns homer and apologist, I am not going to apologize for this article. Stern needs to apologize. He needs to show some humility or step down. With the timing of the Suns-Spurs game, now is the appropriate time. This is not about last year’s playoffs; it is about this year’s hypocrisy. This is something that cannot – should not – be forgotten.

Before I go further, let me be clear that the Suns staff and players appear to be over this and should be over. However, both Steve Nash and Coach D’Antoni have said they like the fans’ passion on this issue. To some extent, I would agree that the fans need to get over the injustice, too. But, when I say “get over it” I certainly do not mean “forget about it.”

The injustice and the hypocrisy of the current referee scandal should be juxtaposed at every opportunity. We need to follow him around screaming like that crazy old lady in the Princess Bride from Princess Buttercup’s dream sequence in which she marries Prince Humperdinck. If the NBA were a democracy, Stern would be impeached. If it were a publicly-traded company, he would be fired by the shareholders.

The main problem is that he has forgotten the first rule of holes: stop digging. His presser during the 2009 All-Star game announcement was dripping with sarcasm. He claimed that he did not alter the playoffs because the Suns still managed to lose two games (one without their All-NBA center and his back-up and the other in San Antonio after the suspensions). It reminded me a great deal of the letter he sent to me (and the thousands of other upset emailers) a full week after the suspensions, four days after the Suns were eliminated from the playoffs and the day of the Draft Lottery. Nice timing.

To paraphrase the Bard, “Methinks Stern doth protest too much.”

He did not enforce the referee gambling rule because he thought that it was not uniformly enforced in the past? He thought it was “too harsh” and did not comport with reality? He thought the “leaving the bench” rule was a “bright-line” rule that has been uniformly enforced?

I expect more of a lawyer. When an important, “strict liability” statute is in place, the key terms are defined. The referee rules had some pretty well-defined terms which he chose to ignore but the leaving-the-bench rule left some big holes on key terms.

"Rule 12, Section VII(c) of the NBA Official Playing Rules says: ‘During an altercation, all players not participating in the game must remain in the immediate vicinity of their bench. Violators will be suspended, without pay, for a minimum of one game and fined up to $50,000.’"·

Okay? But where are the terms “altercation” and “immediate vicinity” defined. How can you have a “bright line” rule that creates “strict liability” if the terms are not defined? Come on, Dave, you’re supposed to be a layer.

Let’s look at “altercation” and “immediate vicinity.” When he was asked for a definition of each term, he gave HIS definition. Therefore, by giving HIS definition, players and coaches are left to use their ESP as to what he means by these words.

When Stu Jackson explained himself on local sports radio the day after the suspensions, he gave a pretty good definition (IMO) of “altercation.” Notwithstanding my grievance regarding the inherent vagueness and subjective nature of the use of HIS, unwritten definitions, the definition did make sense. See, Stu, you can exercise judgment! I can’t remember the specifics of that definition right now, but it sure made a lot of sense. Per this definition, the Duncan-on-the-court incident in the second period would not warrant discipline.

When asked what “immediate vicinity” meant, he said, “Well, 20 to 25 feet is not the ‘immediate vicinity.’” He then went on to say that one foot away from the bench would be the “immediate vicinity.” This means that “immediate vicinity” is somewhere between 1 and 25 feet from your seat on the bench. That is anything but a clear rule.

About a week after the Suns were out of the playoffs, Stern sent out an email message to everyone that complained. Why did he send it out after the wounds had started to heal? In any event, here is a portion of that letter:

"The purpose of the rule is to prevent an on-court altercation from getting worse by making sure that players on the bench do not become involved — whether or not they intend to."

So, intention is not a part of the decision? Didn’t Stern talk about Stern “intent,” “body language” and“ facial expressions” on the now-infamous Dan Patrick Interview. Dave, so we’re sure, which part should I be writing down? That which you email me or the words that you utter?

Later, he writes:

The rule doesn’t look to the intent of the players leaving the bench and it does not distinguish among the curious, the peacemakers or those seeking to become involved in the altercation.

He also wrote:

"Overall, the leaving-the-bench rule, together with others, has succeeded in dramatically reducing the amount of fighting in the league and all but eliminated serious injury during fights that do occur."

It was in place before the Brawl at Auburn Hills, right? Yeah, it was a great deterrent.

See, this is the problem with making statements based on anecdotal evidence. That’s about as logical as saying, “There’s a large rock in my front yard and I’ve never been attacked by a bear. Do you want to purchase my bear-protecting rock so as to safeguard your family?”

In order to prove this statement, you need, at a minimum, the following:

1. An analysis of the frequency of fights in which the benches clear (or are largely emptied) both before and after the rule.
2. An analysis of the seriousness of the injuries occurring during bench-clearing brawls before and after the rule.
3. Evidence, probably based on player interviews, examining why they did not join into on-court altercations. Step 3, of course, only happens if the empirical data from 1 and 2 supports your hypothesis.

Here’s more:

”This is not a rule that can be enforced on a case-by-case basis"

Then, why have you done so in the past? That’s been well-documented. With Bowen and Duncan? I don’t really care about that, though. I am shocked by Stern’s continued “let them eat cake” attitude to the fans of the league.

Why are the referees being given case-specific treatment for a bright-line rule? What has happened to transparency and what is happening to those rule-breakers?

I understand he cannot terminate all of his refs as the officiating in the league would go from deplorable to unbearable, but what is going on?  Where is the latest press release from the NBA regarding all those gambling refs?

I also understand he’s trying to save his legacy and he cannot leave now. Thankfully, he has no political power or there would be t-shirt factories in Afghanistan getting bombed.

The problem with any “zero tolerance” is that it’s double-speak, from politicians spewing their slogans to Stern and Stu. Politicians who promise to "crack down" if elected are as laughable as politicians implementing their programs "to save the children."

“You want to save the children, don’t you?”
“Aren’t you against crime?”

So, NBA double-speak may now be termed either “Stu-Speak” or “Stern-Speak.”

Why not institute “zero tolerance” on calling fouls in the postseason? If the NBA instituted a “zero tolerance” policy on any “defensive” move pioneered by Bruce Bowen or Bill Laimbeer, there would be many more players fouling but I’m pretty sure the vast majority would change the way they play to resemble their regular season play. It would work, right?

I don’t think refs should get fired for being in a casino or playing blackjack in Vegas. Rather, I’d hope this highlights the stupidity of “zero tolerance” policies.

Human judgment is a necessary component of any decision-making process. Even those who claim to mechanically apply rules cannot avoid a judgment call. “Zero tolerance” means all you have to do is robotically answer and not make any decisions. Decision-making without using judgment is always what leads to the robots taking over humankind in the sci-fi movies.

Do not give Stern a pass on this one. Hold his feet to the fire on the referee issue. Do not forget.