NBA Commissioner Emeritus David Stern was one of the outspoken voices in favor of the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) of 1992, which effectively outlawed wagering on sporting events nationwide — with a few exceptions, most notably Las Vegas. But since stepping away from the NBA’s top office in 2014, Stern, 74, has changed his tune on sports betting.
“Over time I’ve come to accept the notion that a properly run gambling operation — or ‘gaming’ as we like to say in Las Vegas — is protective and not deleterious to the health of sports,” says Stern, who believes the solution is to amend PASPA, ensuring the issue remains consistent on a federal level (rather than having 50 different state laws). We sat down one-on-one with Stern, who was the keynote speaker at the Global Gaming Expo (G2E) in Las Vegas.
How did former referee Tim Donaghy’s conviction of illegally betting on games that he officiated influence your opinion on gambling in sports?
Interestingly enough, I viewed the Donaghy thing as a black swan because the Las Vegas infrastructure didn’t pick it up, and even our post-event analysis didn’t come to any particular conclusion. But it did influence me in the context of coming to better understand what Las Vegas does, and how that might be amplified to help all sports leagues that are concerned about betting.
Would legalized sports betting and increased transparency help promote or prevent future sports gambling scandals?
If you ultimately open it up to more people, and you encourage betting — which I think would be a natural progression of what we’re talking about — there will be more opportunities for potential irregularities. You have to be even more vigilant and, as a result, that’s why I would be very supportive of a super-sleuthing law enforcement devoted to sports and sports gaming.
We’ve been lucky in this country. The major “scandals” have for the most part, involving players at least, have been at the collegiate level. Of course, there were the (1919 Chicago White Sox) Black Sox, whatever those were — not even I was born then. But we have to be vigilant because I see what’s happened in lower level soccer and not-so-lower-level tennis, in cricket. It’s kind of scary.
Would you consider becoming the national sports gambling czar?
Me? No, no, no. I’m happy to be informed and outspoken, but I am looking to small opportunities that in the totality may keep me busy, but nothing that consumes large portions of my time.
Have you ever thought of making the NBA Draft Lottery a made-for-TV event, where the results are shown live — like the Powerball lottery does?
I was thinking perhaps I could come back and come out of a cake to make it more exciting as a live event. The reality is that what you have to do for a lottery is pop a lot of ping pong balls. I’ve actually never been inside that room, because I’ve usually been on stage or near the stage. But it’s not our job to give you the best theatre. It’s a really a tedious process. Because of the integrity of it, it’s done in a certain way and that’s the way we do it.
Did you ever joke with Michael Jordan about the rumors that his first retirement was really a secret gambling suspension?
We never discussed it. No. … It was actually someone made that up. An ESPN reporter (Bill Simmons) said, “I’ll bet Michael Jordan was sitting in David Stern’s living room.” And my wife said, “Where was I?” It was literally made up. That’s the way the media works.
Do you think the “one-and-done” rule will be changed in the next collective bargaining agreement?
It’s likely to stay the same, because of the built in biases of the parties. But I think that what’s going to happen is that the NBA Development League at full strength, 30 teams, is actually going to become a more viable alternative to college for kids who just decide that their business is basketball. And rather than just going (to college) and not going to classes, they’ll do good things at the D-League and that’ll be a good. KD (Kevin Durant) used to say that if he had come out of high school, he would’ve been playing video games and walking malls. He appreciated a year at the University of Texas. I believe him.
What are your thoughts on your successor, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver?
I know him as a good person, a hard worker, sensitive person, and he took over at a time when a different approach was necessary. When I was growing the league, it needed a lot of protecting. I viewed my job as stepping in in front of bullets and trains. There were people — many of them in the media — who were brutal and wanted to see the worst of us and were more than ready to condemn almost anything. I adopted, “If you come after my league, you’re going to have to come through me.” We built this incredible $40-to-$50 billion enterprise, which needs the kind of leadership and development that Adam and the group of people with whom he’s surrounded himself are ready to do.
What is the highlight of your tenure as NBA Commissioner?
Before I took over, our players were in the basement of the pyramid of celebrity status. And as we sit here today, they’re at the point of that pyramid, the very top. Whether it’s KD (Kevin Durant) and Russell Westbrook on fashion, or LeBron (James) and Carmelo (Anthony) on social responsibility, or D-Wade (Dwyane Wade) on difficult criminal issues in Chicago… When they stop and talk, people listen. Because they’re respected. It would’ve been impossible to project and believe. And it’s the end result of the work of hundreds, if not thousands, of people that work at the NBA and its teams.