This has been a sadly great year for terrible rhetorical comparisons. At a time when our nation’s political conversation is being refereed by sleepy elites and conducted by fuming, over-fervid exurban Chamber of Commerce fucks, it’s easy to drag that into stories about sports. (I know, because I’ve done it recently myself) And with dictators toppling in Egypt and Tunisia, teetering in Yemen and Libya (although the latter is looking nervous), the temptation to draw parallels that ought not be drawn is near-overwhelming. It’s easy to see why this would be, and simple enough to sympathize with the impulse. With the old Yiddish curse of “living in interesting times” unfolding in a dozen way-too-real ways at the moment, strictly writing about sports-as-sports does have kind of a strange, itchy sense of irresponsibility about it — not acknowledging the basic meaninglessness of the topic, or at least not endeavoring to connect it to the increasingly urgent context of the actual world, seems like a bad look. Not for Gregg Doyel, who is going to say what you weren’t thinking about the SEC just as fervidly and dimly and loudly as ever, but certainly for actual humans who care about things other than SHOCKING you with their bold n’ provocative opinions on the SEC.
And yet there’s nothing that says these comparisons are always wrong, either. When NBA Commissioner David Stern takes a passive-aggressive, nice-X-you-got-there-shame-if-anything-happened-to-it approach to dissent, he is behaving in a maybe-sorta autocratic way, and there’s no shame in acknowledging that, or rolling out a more of-the-moment synonym for autocrat. In a solid column for the Miami Herald on Stern’s high-handed approach to Stan Van Gundy’s criticism of the league’s less-than-liberal approach to public criticism (and slightly less-nuanced comparison of Stern to a Mubarak-y dictator type), Dan Le Batard shows how this is done. In short, by leaving out the “Stern is the NBA’s Gaddafi, and Van Gundy is like the opposition in Benghazi, and Ryan Anderson is like Said Gaddafi and J.J. Redick is like…” goofery and generally letting Stern’s subtle-ish bullying speak for itself.
I can see how someone else might look at [Van Gundy's comments] and see simply a misbehaving employee taking a ridiculous public shot at the head of the company, which isn’t allowed in most workplaces. I can also see why Stern wouldn’t like it and might even try to punish it, though Van Gundy doesn’t seem to much mind financial consequences when he thinks he is right… So this is what Stern did instead: He reminded everyone that he was the boss.
“I would venture a guess that we’re not going to be hearing from [Van Gundy] for the rest of the season,” Stern told radio host Colin Cowherd in that way of his. “I think when he stops and reads what he said, realizes what he did, he will say no more. I have whatever influence the bylaws and constitution give me, and they’re substantial, but I have a feeling some modicum of self-restraint will cause Stan, and the team for which he works, to rein in his aberrant behavior.” In other words, Stern objected to being called a dictator by behaving like one. He reminded everyone of his powers. He spread the gospel of fear. He suggested dire consequences if future behavior displeased him.
… “Because he tried to make it so personal, I’m not going to do anything about it this time,” Stern said.
Huh? Well, actually, Stern then did do something. In fact, he did something I don’t think I’ve ever seen any commissioner of any league ever do. He objected to how personal Van Gundy made it by making it even more personal. “I see somebody whose team isn’t performing, whose star player is suspended, who seems to be fraying,” he said. This sound like a commissioner talking? A calm and impartial leader? Or a wounded child?
Would it have been better without the references to firing squads (oops) and guillotines (come on)? Absolutely, yes. But there’s a point worth making and a parallel worth drawing here, and fear of making a comparison in bad taste shouldn’t keep Le Batard or anyone else from making that point or drawing that parallel. You know Doyel isn’t worrying about that shit.