Anyone Still Want to Change that Leave the Bench Rule?

February, 22, 2008
2/22/08
3:49
PM ET

Remember when Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw were suspended for leaving the bench during an altercation in Game 5 of Phoenix's series against San Antonio?

Give me a break. Of course you remember. It's all anyone talked about for about six months there.

Not that it matters, but my take has been that in this case the NBA handled things perfectly. Like a speeding ticket on the way to the emergency room, the rule sucked in this instance. But it's a good rule that prevents untold bench-clearing brawls, in a league that has a constant challenge convincing fans its players aren't dangerously irresponsible. The league simply needs bench players to stay in their seats when there are fights, and I don't know a better way to do it. (And if the league lets well-meaning players off, like that highway cop might in my example above, don't we have whole bunches of players leaping off the bench all game long?)

I was in the minority, though, and there were countless calls to repeal that rule.

Even Commissioner Stern seemed frustrated with the way the rule was written. In the immediate aftermath he went on ESPN radio with Dan Patrick and said, among other things: "I'm unhappy with the result. If the owners would like to change it, I'm happy to do it, believe me. I'd be very happy to do it. But to listen to the palaver that Robert Horry changed the series is just silly. What changed the series is that Amare and Boris ran out onto the court."

Stern also added at the time: "I guess it's a shame that I have a rule that I have to enforce," although he also adds that in the decade that rule has been in effect, no owner has ever suggested a change.

It seemed such a suggestion was forthcoming, right? And it seemed the most likely person to suggest such a change would be the owner of the Phoenix Suns, Robert Sarver.

But after the subsequent board of governors meetings, there was word that no one had proposed changing that rule. And the rule remains intact, apparently without even a challenge.

What happened?

Brian Berger of Sports Business Radio recently asked Phoenix owner Robert Sarver about that rule. Has he tried to have it changed? Sarver's response was fascinating. (Berger's question in bold.)

When you go to the board of governors meetings, I know there's another one coming up in April, have you suggested that they re-think the leave the bench rule, or are you going to leave it alone and not say anything?

You know at the last meeting I was going to bring it up, but what I found out was that's not a rule that was ever voted on by the board of governors. That's a rule by the commissioner, and the way the league works is that the commissioner is in charge of making and enforcing rules that take place on the court, and so that's not really in the purview of the owners to begin with.

Well, well, well, this is an interesting turn of events. The commissioner seemed to be begging some owners to ask him to change the rule. And how we have the owner in the eye of the storm suggesting that it would be beyond his jurisdiction to do so.

Could that be so? I sent Sarver's quote above to the NBA, and received the following explanation from a league spokesperson:

The Board of Governors has authority over any matter it chooses to and while it has traditionally allowed the commissioner to enact rules for on-court conduct, it also has the authority to change those rules.

This particular rule was discussed by the teams, at the competition committee before the start of the season, and the rule was reaffirmed with no motions to change it. While it was not discussed at the most recent Board of Governors meeting, any Governor can bring up a proposed rule change, have it discussed and voted upon at board meetings.

Robert Sarver has heard the explanation from the league above, and passes word through a Suns representative that he has no comment.

Which leaves me guessing ... with the league making clear that the rule certainly could be changed, and an owner apparently not taking steps to change it.

Could be that Robert Sarver doesn't think it's worth going to the trouble of trying to rally the support to get the rule changed. It could be that he doesn't think it's possible to rally that support among owners who have evidently supported this rule in the past.

Or it could be that Robert Sarver simply doesn't think the rule needs to be changed. There is a lot of merit to preventing bench-clearing brawls, and harsh though it may be this rule does that.

Some have suggested that the rule itself isn't nearly as terrible as the way it has been enforced -- and changing the rule wouldn't remove the league office's sole discretion over these kinds of suspensions. If you see the judgment of the league as the problem, why tinker with the rule book?

And here's where I feel for Robert Sarver: the way things happened in Phoenix during the playoffs, with so much outrage, anything he said in support of the rule as is could be construed as letting down his players and his fans. He has to have their backs! His only real choices are to go to war against the rule, or kind of hope the controversy goes away, and focus attention elsewhere.

Hey, look, it's Shaquille O'Neal!

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