Saturday, December 1, 2012

Day of Rest? When is it Not OK to Bench Your Best Players

David Stern's stern reprimands aside, the decision to field less than your best is a time honored tradition in sports.

In 1990 a $25,000 fine was levied by Commissioner Stern against the Lakers for Pat Riley putting out a Washington Generals type squad for the last game of the regular season. The succinct response of the coach was that "I decide who the heck I want to play."

In the middle of the third quarter of game 15 of the 2009 NFL season, Peyton Manning headed to the bench, notwithstanding his team holding a tenuous 15-10 lead against the Jets. Shortly thereafter, dreams of a perfect season vanished in a 29-15 defeat and the team was booed off the field by the hometown crowd. The Jets playoff hopes, dead on arrival, were revived while others like the Steelers and Texans, fighting for the post-season could only watch and wonder. Afterwards, came the explanation. "I can narrow my scope and once you make a decision you live with it." Coach speak at its finest

And in a shining example of oratorical beauty on this topic, Washington Nationals Manager Davey Johnson proclaimed this September: "I really don't give a rat's ass what somebody thinks about my club and who I put on the field to either help somebody else or I'm not supposed to rest my regulars after we clinch it."

It is not only those with little or nothing to lose who play this game (or more accurately, don't), In August of 2010, the Yankees were battling for first place with the Tampa Bay Rays. On a Sunday, manager Joe Girardi left A-Rod and several other regulars on the bench. When explaining the resulting 3-0 loss, which dropped their lead to a single game, Girardi said, "I'm just playing so I don't blow somebody out...People they're gonna question it, but I gotta think about the long haul."

The decision of the Spurs to send four regulars home before a nationally televised game against the Miami Heat this week was certainly not a determination one could anticipate. A marquis match-up and then it wasn't. Yet the fact that the game was in doubt until the last seconds should make for more than an interesting asterisk.

Is there something larger than a responsibility to your own team? In sports, particularly professional sports, is there an obligation to put on the best show every night? The answers of the coaches cited herein, when forced to address those questions, are clear and certain.

Did Coach Popovich step over some mythical line any more than the others? Did he damage the integrity of the game or did he merely make a tactical decision, and in the process send a message both to the soon to be departing Mr. Stern and the next NBA czar about protecting players against unreasonable scheduling demands of the league?

This was not equivalent to the actions of the Olympic badminton players from South Korea, China and Indonesia intentionally "not using one's efforts to win a match" and "conducting oneself in a manner clearly abusive or detrimental to the sport."

Commissioner Stern apologized to the fans and pounded the Spurs for their transgression. He should instead be apologizing to the coach for condemning his decision to consider the long term welfare of his team rather than the overnight TV numbers.

Even God rested on the seventh day.

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