David Stern has to be sitting in the NBA's Fifth Avenue offices this morning, listening to the talk surrounding the Super Bowl and saying to himself, "Welcome to my world.''
Fans openly questioning the league's integrity, spurred on by the losing coach? Superstar players blowing off major events for money? Hmmm, where have we heard that all before?
Everybody nodded to themselves in silent agreement (or, in many cases, didn't bother being silent) when it's happened in the NBA over the past decade. How willing will America be to wonder aloud about how upstanding and aboveboard the NFL is, now that Seattle and the Seahawks organization are brazenly blaming their Super Bowl loss on the zebras, and now that Joe Montana has to answer reports that he spurned the pre-game MVP celebration because the league wouldn't pay him 100 grand to do it?
Please, like you have to ask any of that about the NTL (National Teflon League).
A better question is, will the NFL come down on Mike Holmgren the way Stern landed on Jeff Van Gundy during last year's playoffs? Van Gundy got docked $100,000 and was forced to apologize for turning his Rockets' playoff series against the Mavericks into a forum on the officials' integrity. Better, or worse, than what Holmgren pulled at the Seahawks' welcome-home rally yesterday? What he told the fans at the rally was, "I didn't know we were going to have to play the guys in the striped shirts as well.''
Never mind that Holmgren, otherwise a respected head coach with a Lombardi Trophy already, showed himself to be a garden-variety loser with that cheap stunt, that low-rent attempt to suck up to a crowd that should have been angry at him for his weak clock-management. Is he any different than the parade of NBA coaches who whined every time their teams lost to Michael Jordan or Shaquille O'Neal, blaming it on refs, league officials and network honchos who "wanted'' the superstars and/or big-markets teams in the championship?
The other question, however, is: is Holmgren any different than the Steelers' Joey Porter, who said the refs "cheated'' in that big overturned call against the Colts. The NFL didn't punish Porter. Apparently the NFL is solid and secure enough to shrug off accusations that either it or its paid game arbiters fix games. Or this country's sports fans think the NFL's credibility bank is full enough that they won't smear the entire sport because of one spate of incompetently-officiated games. Obviously, from all the talk Stern has to shoot down every year, fans don't give the NBA that same benefit of the doubt, for whatever reason.
Nevertheless - "The refs stole it from us.'' C'mon, Seattle, be bigger than that. Oops, too late. Well, try this. Find a tight end who can catch, or a quarterback who can call plays quickly at the line of scrimmage, or defensive backs who can read and react to a gimmick play the other team uses all the time.
Speaking of Shaq, the world dumped all over him back in 1997 when he was the only living member of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players not to attend the ceremony at the All-Star Game in Cleveland. Time will tell whether Montana gets a pass for blowing off the Super Bowl's 40th-anniversary MVP ceremony, the one that all but three living MVPs attended - because he wanted to get paid.
Montana denied it. Believe his denial if you like. Since he invoked his family, he made himself fairly criticism-proof, proving again what a convenient ploy that is. Still, where there's smoke, there's fire. Montana hasn't exactly been above shilling for whatever company is willing to pay; by all reporters, he did plenty of it in Detroit in the week leading up to the game. So it isn't exactly implausible for him to do it when the league called on him to help promote it.
Meanwhile, were the families of the MVPs who showed up all right with the arrangements, or was it only Montana's that ran the risk of being inconvenienced? Bet some of the older MVPs, like Len Dawson and Joe Namath, who have had health problems recently, could have pressed the league for a big payout for their services - but instead, they went willingly, and in Namath's case (catch the way he showed off the lining of his suit jacket, which was covered with Jets' logos), enthusiastically. Some of them, like Tom Brady, even withstood booing from the partisan Steelers' crowd.
This was a little bigger than your basic sit-wave-and-sign session; this was (literally, in some cases) a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Think about Harvey Martin, who didn't live long enough to attend this, and Reggie White, whose widow accepted his Hall of Fame selection. If this really was about spending time with his family, this wouldn't even be an argument. But if money was involved, Montana should be ashamed of himself.
The NFL should be ashamed, too, of this and the way its reputation is being trashed by its own people. Then again, all of it probably will roll off its back, as everything else does. After all, this dog of a game with the dog of a buildup all week, was the one of the highest-rated and most-watched Super Bowls ever. When all is said and done, it will be Paul Tagliabue laughing in his office, and David Stern shaking his head.