No rest for David Stern

With all due respect to the president of the United States, some days I think David Stern has the most thankless job in America.

The NFL is the best league in America, the national obsession that gets a free pass for just about everything. Stern and the NBA rarely receive the same free pass as the NFL, even though the NBA has the bigger global stars -- LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant -- and its players often set trends in both sports and pop culture.

But despite NBA players' immense international popularity, they also face incredible resentment, which I suppose these days is just part of being a pro athlete.

That sometimes becomes apparent in seemingly innocuous debates. This time, it was the criticism directed at Stern for some NBA players blatantly taking games off toward the end of the season to prepare for the playoffs -- something that has become an annual annoyance for fans.

If you purchased a ticket to see the Miami Heat play at San Antonio on March 31, you saw LeBron and Dwyane Wade dressed in tailored suits on the bench rather than dazzling people with dunks.

This season, the complaints began in November when the teams played in Miami. Coach Gregg Popovich chose to send home four of his top five scorers at the time, including Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan. It didn't matter that the Spurs almost won the game anyway. Stern, likely feeling embarrassed because it was a nationally televised game featuring the defending champions, fined the Spurs $250,000, citing the team's failure to inform the league.

This mini-controversy resurfaced Monday after Stern appeared on ESPN radio shows The Herd with Colin Cowherd and Stephen A. Smith and Ryan Ruocco's show.

Stern said he recently brought up the issue with owners, and he admitted he didn't know what to do about it.

"We have to come up with some better way to make sure our fans, in effect, get their money's worth," Stern told Smith and Ruocco. "It hardly seems fair that if I bought a ticket to a game and expect to see a team there and half the team isn't there. I don't have a great answer for it."

Here's the easiest solution for David Stern and the NBA:

Don't do a thing.

Stern is up against a force he never has been able to control -- the stereotyping of his players.

Certainly the bulk of the criticism aimed at the NBA and players is fair. It's expensive to attend any professional sporting event. And I do have some sympathy for those fans who went to these games in good faith only to have their night soured because a star player didn't play.

But NBA players, perhaps more so than other professional athletes, too often are perceived as overpaid prima donnas. Whenever I ask NBA detractors why they don't like the NBA, they almost always say they think the players are show-offs and that they don't play hard every game.

In 2004, Latrell Sprewell ignited controversy during a bitter contract negotiation with the Minnesota Timberwolves when he said it was more important for him to get paid than win an NBA title.

"Why would I want to help them win a title?" Sprewell told the St. Paul Pioneer Press at the time, even though he made $14.6 million that season. "They're not doing anything for me. I've got a lot of risk here. I've got a family to feed."

Sprewell wasn't characterized as simply a lone knucklehead, but rather viewed as typical of the selfishness of NBA players. That attitude spills over into today's topic. Even though coaches decide when it's appropriate to rest their players, fans assume the star players dictate such moves and thus are to blame.

Never mind that in the course of a grueling season there will be moments when pro athletes have a difficult time mustering up the maximum effort. They always want to win, but that can be much more challenging during a four-game road trip or back-to-back games.

Some nights, they just won't have it. Professional athletes do get tired. Their bodies do wear down.

But nobody wants to hear that, even though MLB players rest during the regular season and NFL teams sometimes rest players when they lock in playoff spots.

Obviously there are more games in baseball, and in the NFL, the risk of injury is higher -- although pounding your legs on a court 82 times a year isn't exactly a picnic.

Sports is a business for athletes, and they're entertainment for the fans. Because NBA players have guaranteed contracts, some fans feel they are owed a specific experience.

But all you're owed when you buy a ticket to a game is the opportunity to see the event live. You aren't owed a great game. You aren't owed a memorable experience. And based on coaching decisions in previous seasons, you should expect teams that have locked up a playoff seed to be thinking ahead to the first round.

This isn't a ticket to see a concert headlined by a pop star. Some nights the understudies get the starring roles. Players have an unpredictable and ultimately limited number of games -- injury could end their careers at any time -- and years in which to earn a ring and as much money as they can from basketball. Owners pay hundreds of millions for these franchises, and sometimes decisions have to be made that are in the best interest of the franchise, not the crowd for an individual game.

"It doesn't have an easy answer," Stern told Cowherd.

Sometimes the answer is to not do anything.