NBA Commissioner Adam Silver probably wanted a little more time to get the feel of his feet on the floor of his New York office before he had to deal with a crisis. After all, Silver just moved into the big chair less than three months ago, taking over for David Stern, who retired after 30 years in the job. But a recording that purports to represent a conversation between Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling and his girlfriend has prematurely ended Silver’s honeymoon.
The bespectacled new commissioner will spend the first few days after his 52nd birthday dealing with twin issues far more incendiary than settling a collective bargaining problem with the union. Silver must not only negotiate the thorny area of race, but he also must figure out how to potentially discipline someone who is technically his employer.
As you probably have heard, Sterling, the longest tenured owner in the NBA, is alleged to have made racially charged remarks to his mixed race girlfriend in a tape, the contents of which were made public by the website TMZ. Those comments surfaced early Saturday. Thanks to the 24-hour news cycle and the speed of social media, the 81-year-old Sterling was introduced to a public that doesn’t follow NBA box scores, but knows repugnant statements when they hear them. Once word spread that Sterling had settled a 2009 housing discrimination suit during which an employee testified that the Clipper owner said that blacks "smell, they’re not clean," and Mexicans " just sit around and smoke and drink all day," the feeding frenzy was on. It should be noted that all that happened on Stern's watch and he could/ should have addressed Sterling's behavior then.
By dinnertime this past Saturday, Hall of Fame player Charles Barkley said Silver had to suspend Sterling and Rev. Al Sharpton called on the NBA to kick Sterling out of the fraternity that he has been a part for 34 years. Silver condemned the remarks Saturday night, but wisely announced that the league would quickly investigate to see if the tape had been doctored or if Sterling actually made the remarks.
In a statement issued by the Clippers, Sterling contended that the woman in the tape, a V. Stiviano, embezzled nearly $2 million from his family and threatened revenge. The statement said the sentiments in the tape were the "antithesis of who he is, what he believes and how he has lived his life".
Nonetheless, if the tape can be authenticated, Silver will have to do something. Stern left the NBA as the league where diversity isn’t just a goal, but the norm. The league gets the highest marks of all sports organizations in its hiring of minorities and women, and 78 percent of its players are Black. To allow even the perception that bigotry is tolerated in the NBA would damage the good work that Stern started and nurtured.
The problem for Silver is that Sterling is one of 30 men who both gave him the job and could take it away. Penalizing him isn’t at all like fining and suspending a coach or player for wayward behavior. Taking a harsh stance against Sterling may rid Silver of one bad owner, only to draw the notice of 29 others who will wonder how he might react if they step out of line someday.