Grading Adam Silver: The Donald Sterling Conundrum

When the Donald Sterling audio tape was leaked by TMZ last week, it sent shockwaves through the social media world, involving not just NBA fans, but any person understandably outraged by Sterling’s racist comments. The incident forced new NBA commissioner into a huge spotlight, as even people who were not fans of the game were eagerly awaiting the decision. With statements being made by multiple owners, former legends and current players, at surface level it seemed like an easy decision to simply do away with Donald Sterling completely from the NBA. But as an owner, it’s not that easy.
Technically Adam Silver is the employee of the owners. They write his paychecks. But according to sources cited on Sports Illustrated, there are NBA by-laws that would allow Silver to make just about any decision under the blanket-statement of “in the best interests of the NBA”. With that kind of power, Silver really had a lot of options in terms of punishment for Sterling.
In the end, he announced that Sterling would be fined $2.5 million (more than expected, but still pocket change for an owner) and Sterling was banned from all NBA games, practices and events for life. In essence, Silver brought the hammer down. And in that way, it may not seem all that different than his predecessor, David Stern would have handled the situation. In fact, Stern may have been harsher. What stuck out to onlookers was both the careful consideration of what the punishment should be and the way in which he handled himself in a true crises. Silver also stated that the owners would vote on whether or not Sterling should be allowed to keep his team, while pointing out his views that he should not be allowed to keep it.
In this way, Silver was a genius. In all practical senses, he turned the decision over to the owners’ vote. This not only proved a success in curbing any comments that the commissioner himself was to powerful, while still almost guaranteeing Sterling’s exit. After stars such as Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Lebron James all expressed displeasure on social media towards Sterling’s actions, it would be political suicide for any of the owners to vote against the NBA facilitating the process to sell Sterling’s team to another owner. I fully expect it to be a unanimous vote to remove Sterling as owner, whether that is actually the true sentiment of the other 29 or not.
Mark Cuban said it best prior to Silver’s ruling, when he publicly announced he did not support Sterling’s views in any way, but thought that the scenario of forcing the owner to sell the team in the wake of his personal views behind closed doors was a “slippery slope”. Silver considered that, and handled it in a professional manner, handing down the fines and suspension, but leaving the largest, most controversial decision up to the owners themselves, who actually make the league happen.
Silver knew that Sterling could not remain the owner after the media firestorm that came down on the league. But he made the intelligent decision to not be the one to make the decision. He deferred to the owners so as to keep the democracy aspect of the NBA afloat, while still remaining confident that the owners must remove Sterling. Every owner (including Cuban) has expressed support for Silver, and appreciated the increased level of communication his office has delivered (as compared to the steel wall of Stern).
All in all, Silver gets an A for handling the Sterling situation in a prompt, commanding way that did not compromise the NBA’s democratic feel. And while it is a coincidence that this all came out while the Clippers are in the playoffs, for the NBA itself, it is just one more storyline for this year. The P.R. department of the Clippers and the NBA has done a fantastic job of isolating Sterling’s beliefs with him, and the NBA has been reflected in a positive light because of it. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Clippers-Warriors series saw a ratings spike, even with late-night start times. Congratulations Adam Silver, you are now fully enshrined as the NBA commissioner.

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