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Stephen A. Smith | Time to deal Stern out of blame game

He enforces the rules. The players need to respect them.

With commissioner David Stern, the temptation is usually to adopt a worst-case scenario, blame arrogance for every decision he makes, then lament the absolute power he has over more than 400 players in the National Basketball Association who look absolutely nothing like him. A player gets fined because Stern is a control freak! They're suspended because he's kowtowing to patrons who share his cultural identity and hue! And when Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw of Phoenix get suspended for leaving their bench area during a fracas - supposedly - it's further proof of Stern's prejudice and penchant for dealing with a heavy hand.

Meanwhile, nobody's paying attention to the real NBA culprits: the players.

Stoudemire and Diaw were wrong last week. Stephen Jackson was wrong for his involvement in an incident at an Indianapolis nightclub last summer. Ron Artest was insane for running into the stands more than two years ago. And so is any player who remotely defends them, chiding commissioner Stern along the way.

The biggest crime taking place in the NBA these days has a lot to do with player behavior, but it pales in comparison to the problem involving their collective conscience. A conscience that's paying far too much attention to the dollars their skills have generated and far too little attention to the cop Stern has been forced to become strictly to ensure the future prosperity of the league and the players themselves.

In the interest of full disclosure and avoiding hypocrisy, these thoughts were not in my head earlier this week. I was disgusted when Stern handed down the one-game suspensions to Stoudemire and Diaw for leaving their bench area after Spurs forward Robert Horry, who got a two-game suspension, instigated the incident by hip-checking Suns point guard Steve Nash. I knew the Suns' chances of beating the Spurs without Stoudemire ventured from slim in Game 5 to worse for a Game 6 back in San Antonio.

I thought the suspensions were wrong, and nothing has changed. The rule stinks, because it's black and white. There is no shade of gray. It stinks because it makes no effort to take human instinct into account, and it's one of the few rules that takes the NBA off the hook by not entertaining the league's discretionary judgment, like almost every other rule it has in place.

But it's one thing to blame a rule and quite another thing to blame Stern. Especially considering the circumstances he's working under. There are patrons to answer to. Patrons on Madison Avenue, as my colleague David Aldridge astutely mentioned this week, who've essentially labeled the NBA product as a body of thugs and hooligans.

"We can't have situations like this," an NBA official in the league office told me last week. "So many said, 'Well, Amare didn't do anything. You don't know what he would have done.'

"But that's exactly the point - you don't know. There's no way to tell. Somebody could get hurt just walking into a situation. We learned that years ago from Kermit Washington's hit on Rudy Tomjanovich. So don't blame Commissioner Stern. Blame Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw."

And please, don't stop there. It's time for society to start blaming itself, too.

Maybe it's time for someone to explain how one arrest after another keeps contaminating the NFL, but it still has a better reputation than the NBA's. Maybe someone can elaborate on how someone in major-league baseball can receive a pitch high and inside, forcing both benches to empty with bad intentions, but this sport is still considered America's pastime, while the NBA is labeled a bastion of hoodrats?

Anyone can point out the obvious: that those other sports are not as close to the fans. You can't reach out and touch those athletes. Or they can say no one has to worry about spit hitting a little girl sitting near courtside like they can at a basketball game. The truth is, though, we all know it's not that simple.

Everything is not black and white, but some things are. A majority of players in the NBA are black; most of the league's affluent patrons are white.

Strangely, though, in one of those rare occasions, the patrons can argue they are just as victimized as the players. Commissioner Stern is living proof.

While players walk around today with guaranteed millions, Stern is left picking up the mess, defending the indefensible, even when it appears he is not doing so.

For every ruling against Stoudemire and Diaw, against Jackson and Artest, there is Stern in moments similar to the one he had on Capitol Hill during the government's steroid investigation, refusing to allow anyone to taint the league's collective image by using a few bad apples.

Now, all the players have to do is one thing in return: Stop being bad apples.

Maybe then, we can blame Stern for something.