Less than three months after assuming the role of NBA commissioner, Adam Silver was faced with a challenge that may very well be the defining moment of his likely long tenure as commissioner. LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling became the top headline across the country when an audio recording of his racist remarks were released to the public. Immediately the NBA clamored to respond appropriately amid widespread public outcry. Because this emotional issue affected so many players, coaches, and fans, the entire image of the NBA was at stake. Silver’s stance on what exactly the NBA would or would not tolerate would likely become the precedent for how these matters are handled. Silver understood that resolving Donald Sterling’s association with NBA will not automatically prevent future issues, nor could change an entire culture overnight. However, what is more significant than the magnitude of this issue, was the response by those in positions of leadership. The steps that Adam Silver would take to address this matter proved extremely important, and he responded to the situation in the best way possible.
Silver took this issue very seriously. By his own admission, he was disgusted with the comments made, and reiterated they had no place in the NBA. Silver could have flown off the handle, could have jumped to every possible conclusion. He could have tried to make sweeping changes too fast, could have allowed everyone’s opinion to shape the NBA’s response. But he didn’t. What did he do? He respected the process. No matter how confident anyone claimed to be that the voice was indeed Sterling’s; no matter how distasteful we found the recorded comments, Silver promised “due process” and a thorough investigation. Not just for the sake of fairness, but to preserve the integrity of the matter, lest an appeal be claimed on the basis of a lack of due diligence.
He was efficient. Silver emphasized that the investigation would be completed in a timely manner. Coaches don’t want to answer questions about owner’s comments; they want to address strategy for the next game. Players don’t want to think about boycotting games; they want to think about winning games. Off-the-court issues are even more distracting when a team is competing for a championship. In the first round of the playoffs, there are already some tremendous matchups and great games. Silver gave a timely response, allowing the focus back on basketball.
He understood that specific individuals were personally affected. Silver apologized to those targeted by any of the recorded racist comments. He stood up for the players and coaches, and understood that issues of race are extremely important and should not be taken lightly.
He recognized the limits of his power. Silver made a bold decision; any lifetime ban is a monumental move. But he knew the limits of the NBA constitution which set the maximum fine at $2.5 million. He did not try to personally remove Sterling as the Clippers owner, but instead called for the support of league owners to support him in forcing the sale of the team.
In making his decision, Silver affirmed that the NBA is bigger than the sum of its parts; that as an institution, the NBA can enforce expectations for its membership and association. Anything less would have weakened his support from players; anything more would have overstepped his role as commissioner. It will take more than this one incident to change the culture of sports and society, but we can learn how to effectively deal with these matters in the future. Fans, coaches, and players called for a fair decision presented clearly and effeciently. That’s exactly what Adam Silver delivered. AN