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David Stern and the Birth of the Athlete Statesman

As the leader of the NBA, David Stern used his power to elevate athletes, to inspire fans and non-fans alike, and to reach the better angels of millions of people at home and abroad.

Former NBA Commissioner David Stern was a quiet trailblazer whose reputation was built on transforming the league into a global powerhouse over a tenure spanning three decades. As we look back on his legacy, though, he may well be remembered for something bigger: helping to conceive of and make possible the age of the “Athlete-Statesman.” 

Having coined the term “CEO Statesman,” I find special resonance in Stern’s work to support and lift up the voices of NBA players. At a time when government figures and institutions here in the United States and around the world often struggle to tackle some of our toughest challenges, I’ve written thatcorporate executives have the opportunity to leverage their impact to push for social change. The same applies for professional athletes, entertainers, and others in the public eye. Stern had a visionary understanding that these voices could not and should not be contained – particularly in the age of social media – and instead should be embraced.

During his tenure, Stern launched revolutionary new media and marketing partnerships, digital assets and social responsibility programs that brought the game to billions of people around the world and offered its players the opportunity to engage with a much wider global community. He helped usher in the WNBA, which has created opportunities for extraordinary women to pursue careers at the professional level, and also to serve as role models for young girls who want to believe that they, too, have a path to athletic greatness. He supported changes that made the NBA the first professional sports league to play regular-season games outside the United States, giving international fans a chance to see their heroes in person and on television in their home country. 

Stern stood by Magic Johnson when the superstar announced he was HIV-positive at a time when HIV stigma was extraordinarily high, and supported his return to the league as a chance to educate fans about the illness. Just as important as the initiatives he spearheaded, Stern stood by athletes who wanted to speak up on the causes that mattered to them. The Magic Johnson Foundation has worked since 1991 to raise funds for community-based organizations dealing with HIV/AIDS education and prevention programs. Charles Barkley has been a vocal supporter of education, and particularly of Historically Black Colleges and Universities. 

More recent NBA superstars like LeBron James have embraced their roles as statesmen and role models; James partnered with the University of Akron in 2015 to provide 2,300 scholarships beginning in 2021, for example, and his I Promise School is designed to assist elementary school students at risk of falling behind. High-profile players like Steph Curry have discussed the responsibility they feel to use their prominence for a positive purpose, and to serve as examples for young people. That’s the kind of positive leadership our Athlete-Statesmen have to offer, and the obligation they feel to harness it for good. 

CEOs have a bully pulpit, and the power to allocate capital at scale for a higher purpose. As the leader of the NBA, David Stern used his power to elevate athletes, to inspire fans and non-fans alike, and to reach the better angels of millions of people at home and abroad. In the cross-currents of our increasingly complex world, he recognized his power to drive progress—and he found a golden opportunity to empower others. 

As we commemorate David Stern’s lifetime of extraordinary achievements, we should remember a leader who not only harnessed his own power and influence for social benefit, but who expanded that influence outward, bringing athletes into the limelight in ways that exponentially increased his and their capacity to do good. 

Alan H. H. Fleischmann is Founder, President & CEO of Laurel Strategies, a global business advisory and strategic communications firm for leaders, CEOs and their C-suite.

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