Adam Silver wants you to know that he is really, really not David Stern.
That’s the main takeaway from today’s remarkable press conference in which the new NBA commissioner banned Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling from the team and the league for life for making racist statements. Silver also levied the maximum $2.5 million fine and vowed to force Sterling to sell the Clippers, an outcome most thought appropriate but doubted fell within the league’s powers. “We have the authority to act as I’ve recommended,” Silver said.
In enacting the unprecedented penalty, the harshest possible, Silver is sending the message that he is not going to live in the owner’s pockets. Time will tell if that is more than hot air; Silver gave himself and his league a huge pat on the back with comments about the game’s role in civil rights, and his answers to questions about how Sterling managed to last in the league for this long despite his discriminatory history leave much to be desired. (Note to sports officials everywhere: You might want to avoid the phrasing “I can’t speak to the past.”)
But Silver’s ruling goes far beyond what anybody could have hoped, and are in stark contrast to the actions of his predecessor, Stern, whose heavy hand on player infractions and unevenly enforced personal conduct policy were infused with their own complicated racial politics.
At the same time, let’s not fool ourselves into thinking this is somehow a perfect ending to an untenable situation. There’s something cathartic about this moment, but I think that’s more enthusiastic surprise amid our collective cynicism of the league’s willingness or ability to take any significant action. As Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and ESPN’s Bomani Jones have adeptly and impassionedly stated, the outrage that has been somewhat opportunistically wielded against Sterling needs to be redirected to real, tangible, consequential instances of racism, both everyday and systemic.
Furthermore, Mark Cuban may have flip-flopped entirely on his stance on disciplining Sterling, but his original point still stands: Kicking out an owner for private statements, however abhorrent, made in an illegally taped conversation could be a “slippery slope,” though the league’s constitution does have checks in place to combat this, namely requiring a three-quarters majority vote by the board of governors.
As for Sterling? He bought the Clippers for $12.5 million; they’re now worth more than a half billion. When he’s forced to sell the team, even in his desperate position, he stands to make a boatload of money off a franchise he spent years basically running into the ground. And with the best collection of talent ever, led by Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, who each have years left on their contracts, the Clippers will have prospective bidders jumping to take over (including, perhaps, Magic Johnson).
Let’s definitely give credit where it’s due and recognize Adam Silver’s bravery. But let’s also continue to question why such a stand wasn’t taken in the past, and note when it isn’t being taken in the future. I’m particularly eager to see if our aversion to Sterling’s plantation mentality resurfaces when we’re confronted with its subtler form — say, if the players decide they want to wear Timberland boots on the team bus, or the next time they ask for a raise in the salary cap. Let’s take statements by the NAACP, like this one applauding Silver, with an appropriately heavy dose of salt, and remember that the LA chapter awarded Sterling a lifetime achievement award and was prepared to give him another next month. Let’s work to reform a justice system that ignored legitimate claims of workplace discrimination in one lawsuit and allowed a wealthy man to pay a few millions to quietly continue being “a racist slumlord” in another.
But, mostly, let’s get back to playoff basketball.
Kavitha A. Davidson writes about sports for Bloomberg View. She previously worked as an editor at the Huffington Post.