Retired NBA commissioner David Stern went off about cheating and ethics

David Stern (left) and Sunil Gulati.
David Stern (left) and Sunil Gulati.
Image: Quartz/Oliver Staley
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As NBA commissioner, David Stern was a strict and unyielding monarch, who presided over a successful and growing empire for 30 years. In retirement, unshackled from those responsibilities, he is happy to let loose with his raw, undiplomatic opinions about the ills befalling sports and business.

Cheating and ethical lapses are pervasive, from soccer stars evading taxes and state-sanctioned doping in the Olympics, to companies giving lip-service to social responsibility while gouging customers, Stern said Nov. 18 at a forum about business ethics and leadership hosted by Columbia Business School.

As the former CEOs of Merck and Duke Energy, among others, looked on, Stern, the former chairman of Columbia’s board of trustees, let loose on the transactional nature of corporate ethics.

“It’s too easy,” he said. “Every company has a head of corporate responsibility, you form a foundation, you give all your employees Friday off to do charity, blah, blah, blah. Then you fix prices at a business association meeting.”

He took aim at Facebook, which said it has misreported how many people view its ads, and allowed the spread of fake news on its platform. The directors of venture-capital backed companies need to speak up, he said. “Where are the boards?” he said. “Every company that does wrong, that’s funded by venture capital, I want to hear from the venture capitalists that they are ashamed.”

Even NFL quarterback Tom Brady wasn’t spared. ”Who doesn’t think those footballs weren’t under inflated?” he asked.

Stern was joined on the panel by Sunil Gulati, the president of US Soccer, and both men criticized Colin Kaepernick for his decision to kneel during national anthem as a protest against injustice in the US. Stern suspended NBA player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf for a similar protest in 1996, but said Kaepernick’s case was different because he had the permission of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, and because president Obama said he had a constitutional right to speak out.

“Wrong!” Stern exclaimed. “He has the rights his union collectively bargained for him, but I guess Obama didn’t take a class in labor law.”

When Gulati discussed his decision to suspend goalkeeper Hope Solo, in part for her critical remarks after the US women’s national team lost to a defensively minded Swedish team, Stern defended Solo. “I thought Hope Solo was right,” he said. “They were a bunch of cowards.”

At one point, Steven Mandis, a Columbia adjunct professor, gingerly turned the conversation to a more positive note, noting sportsmanship still exists. He cited Nikki Hamblin and Abby D’Agostino, two runners in the Olympics who, after tripping in the 5,000 meters, helped each other finish their race. But Stern couldn’t resist one last shot.

“Are you sure they weren’t doping together?” he joked. “You need to be a little more cynical.”