The question of toughness- can you handle adversity- defines all men in battle. To that question NBA Commissioner Adam Silver passed the first test. Without pause he evicted Donald Sterling. After it was over Adam Silver took on folk hero status among NBA players, all of whom were prepared to boycott tonight’s playoff games had he not banned Donald Sterling for life. Adam Silver reaped the benefit of his own tough resolve. He captured the nation with his leadership acumen. He strengthened a league even as it is in the midst of prosperity. He defined the point of view of owners and took a stand, one based on civil rights law, one based on morality and decency. In the end it was worth it for the groups he legitimized, the players and the owners. The players were united in their cause regardless of how Adam Silver handled it. The owners were about to panic if Silver wasn’t tough enough. But to the surprise of many he was propelled into action and driven by anger. His decision prevented mutiny. There was no player boycott. There was no additional grease on the fire. Silver’s leadership and empathy on the issue of race, something most of the players internalize deeply, relieved everyone of a heavy burden. They could exhale. The players did not have to do more and the owners did not have to wring their hands. The NBA has a policy now. Zero tolerance for bigotry. Zero tolerance for harassment and discrimination. No excuses allowed. And certainly no forgiveness.
One of the hardest tasks in life is to put the past in its appropriate place. It is true that Donald Sterling had years of entitlement and privilege. Everyone looked the other way. But this is a different commissioner. At the beginning of his remarks Adam Silver linked his fate with that of the players. In doing so he isolated Donald Sterling into a corner. He took from him the one thing that had been a constant in Sterling’s life the past 30 years. His NBA team, the Los Angeles Clippers, was not his toy anymore, not really. No longer would he sit in the front row and cheer or castigate his players. No longer would he schmooze with his friends in the locker room. His privileges were gone, ripped away from him because he didn’t understand or didn’t believe all men were created equal. And so when the owners have their vote sometime next month, the Donald Sterling era will be over.
What history will remember though is that this day happened because on too many other days nothing happened. Donald Sterling was given a pass, was disregarded because his team was terrible. He was ignored because his discrimination and harassment had nothing to do with the general health of the league. It was a local issue dealing with local people. Except for this. He owns a team in a city where diversity is honored. Unlike Lakers games, a Clipper game is a cross section of the United Nations, all colors, all ethnicities, all religions. To his own fans Donald Sterling’s comments were a rebuke. To the city where his team plays his comments were offensive. To the players whose checks he signs the comments were unforgivable. They cannot play for him any longer; a line in the sand has been drawn. The only question was: would Adam Silver honor it?
Unfortunately for us, there is no Truth and Reconciliation Committee in the NBA. Owners such as Mark Cuban and Micky Arison and Peter Holt won’t have to face the victims of Donald Sterling’s crimes. They won’t have to explain why they did nothing. They won’t have to stare at the collateral damage of Donald Sterling’s neglect as he pursued wealth and denied the poor mercy. The NBA can go on as it has always gone on, it can pursue capitalism and branding and championship chasing. The real world problems of race and entitlement and institutional privilege are secondary when competition is involved. It is the lure of sports in the first place, two hours of forgetting what the rest of the world is like.
But the rest of the world believes in what is fair. The Clippers and Warriors especially do. They had an elaborate boycott plan in place had Adam Silver not acted in a dramatic fashion. They were going to walk off the floor after player introductions and the National Anthem. All of them. A climactic exit for a striking message. Bigotry is unacceptable. We are willing to sacrifice. It did not come to that and for that Adam Silver deserves the credit.
The goodwill Adam Silver created today has a lasting effect which he will need. He wants to raise the minimum age to 20 and he will need the players support. The players will want something in return. Neither can opt out of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement until 2017 so he has time to establish rapport with the players until he becomes their opponent. Today was a good start. We all know this is not a post racial world, not yet. Still, for the NBA it was a good day.