NBA COMMISSIONER David Stern is one of the sharpest people I've ever met in sports.

He's rarely out of control and almost never says anything without being fully aware of the consequences of those statements and the perceptions they could create.

So I have no doubt Stern knew exactly what he was doing 2 weeks ago when he told Sports writer Ian Thomsen that nationally legalized gambling on the NBA could be a "huge opportunity" for the league.

I just don't know why Stern would even go there.

Betting on games is the ultimate taboo in sports.

It's why every locker room has a notice posted reminding players of the consequences of gambling on sports or even being associated with those who bet on sports.

And considering the stain splashed on the NBA only two summers ago when former NBA referee Tim Donaghy was imprisoned for his role in a betting scandal involving league games, Stern would seem to be the last commissioner to give any credence to the possible gains for his league because of gambling - even legalized betting.

Yet, asked whether it was in the NBA's best interest to look toward legalized betting, Stern told Thomsen, "It has been a matter of league policy to answer that question, 'No.'

"But I think that that league policy was formulated at a time when gambling was far less widespread."

Stern's logic is backward.

Now that casinos are popping up in every state and it's becoming possible that other states besides Nevada could consider legalized sports betting, the NBA's stance, and that of every other professional sports league, should be "Hell, no!"

Betting on games must remain sports' top concern. Belief that the outcomes of games are honest must never be undermined by those involved in the games.

Stern knows that better than anyone.

No professional league has been more damaged than the NBA by accusations of conspiracy to rig the outcomes of games based on the popularity of teams or the opportunity for higher ratings.

It seems that every year during the playoffs, the NBA fends off some level of accusation that something was fixed for the league's financial benefit.

Stern does most of the debunking - and usually with dismissive indignation.

So for Stern to send out a mixed message about legalized betting on NBA games is mystifying.

On one hand, the commissioner says, "Gambling, however it may have moved closer to the line [of being accepted], is still viewed on the threat side.

Then, in the next breath, he says, "Although we fully understand why, buried within that threat, there may be huge opportunity. [The NBA has] moved to the point where that leap is a possibility, although that's not our current position."

I cannot express enough how incredibly stupid that statement was.

Sometimes seeing the forest without looking at the trees is not a good thing.

I'm sure that in the NBA's New York offices, some really smart and savvy people are looking at the changing tide concerning legalized sports betting and envisioning the association getting its cut of what would be a multibillion-dollar industry.

Any sports league would be foolish to not explore every legal means to expand its revenue stream. These are businesses, first and foremost.

But any positives are outweighed by the potential collateral damage from any league openly expressing that betting on the game could potentially be a revenue stream.

People unquestionably will bet on sports, legally or not.

And leagues probably deserve some cut of the pie since they are the product that fuels the industry.

Still, the main reason fans pay to attend NBA games is because they believe the outcome is not predetermined.

And gamblers bet on games only because they believe they have a legitimate shot at winning.

Anything that cuts at those beliefs tears down everything.

Who would believe that a league that endorses sports betting, legal or not, would not have an ulterior motive for doing so?

There are not enough Bibles in the world for the NBA to swear on that would convince people its games aren't fixed if it starts getting a piece of the action.

In this case, image is everything.

The only way sports leagues can remotely protect the belief in the integrity of their games is to vigorously promote the stance that they have nothing to gain by rigging the outcomes.

David Stern knows all of this. That's why I can't understand why he would even take a baby step down that road. *

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