ABOVE PHOTO: NBA Commissioner Adam Silver answers questions during a news conference before Game 4 of an opening-round NBA basketball playoff series between the Memphis Grizzlies and the Oklahoma City Thunder on Saturday, April 26, 2014, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
By Chris Murray
For the Chris Murray Report and the Philadelphia Sunday Sun
In what was the first major crisis of his tenure as the commissioner of the NBA, Adam Silver laid down the moral authority of his leadership like an emphatic LeBron James slam-dunk.
A few days after hearing the bizarre audio of Donald Sterling’s racist rant with his girlfriend, Silver banned the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers from the NBA for life. That means that Sterling is no longer allowed to participate in any aspect of the franchise—from personnel decisions to attending the NBA’s Board of Governors Meetings.
Silver fined Sterling $2.5 million and is recommending that the league’s Board of Governors force Sterling to sell the team.
The commissioner’s action was applauded by Philadelphia 76ers Managing Owner Josh Harris. Sterling’s views have no place in the league, Harris said.
“The Philadelphia 76ers completely support NBA Commissioner Adam Silver,” Harris in a statement. “There is no place for any type of discrimination in our society, and those hurtful and ignorant comments are contrary to the core values and beliefs of our ownership group and organization.”
Sterling’s bigoted telephone conversation with his girlfriend was the tipping point of a sordid racist past that includes a housing discrimination suit filed on behalf of Black and Latino tenants of his apartment building that is still the largest filed in Department of Justice history and another suit filed by NBA great Elgin Baylor, who accused Sterling of running his franchise like a Southern plantation.
PHOTO: Elgin Baylor, the former Los Angeles Clippers general manager who left the basketball team in 2009 after 22 years, speaks at a news conference announcing he has sued the franchise, the NBA and team owner Donald Sterling alleging employment discrimination, with his wife Elaine at his side, in Beverly Hills, Calif., Thursday, Feb. 12, 2009. The lawsuit maintains that Baylor was “discriminated against and unceremoniously released from his position with the team on account of his age and his race” and that he was grossly underpaid. Baylor lost his lawsuit against Sterling when judge tossed out his claim. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)
The way Silver used the bully pulpit of the commissioner’s office to sanction Sterling was reminiscent of the way President Lyndon B. Johnson used the moral authority of the presidency when he urged a joint session of Congress in 1965 to pass the Voting Rights Act.
“Sentiments of this kind are contrary to the principles of inclusion and respect that form the foundation of our diverse, multicultural and multiethnic league,” Silver said at Tuesday’s press conference.
“I am personally distraught that the views expressed by Mr. Sterling came from within an institution that has historically taken such a leadership role in matters of race relations and cause current and former players, coaches, fans and partners of the NBA to question their very association with the league.”
Silver also issued an apology to the game’s basketball players who broke the color line like Earl Lloyd, Chuck Cooper, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, as well as Bill Russell and Magic Johnson, whose Instagram photo with Sterling’s girlfriend apparently sent the Clippers owner over the edge.
The NBA and Clippers brands were damaged with advertisers and sponsors thanks to Sterling tapes. Carmax and State Farm Insurance withdrew their sponsorships with the team, although State Farm retained its association with Clippers point guard Chris Paul.
Silver urged the departing sponsors to rethink their decisions.
“I would say that those marketing partners of the Clippers and partners of the NBA should judge us by our response to this incident and I think we have responded appropriately,” Silver said. “I would be hopeful that they would return into their business relationships with the Clippers. … I can understand how upset they are and I’ll do my best to bring them back into the NBA Family.”
Silver’s handling of a potential crisis in his sport from a historical standpoint is comparable to that of Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis, who became the commissioner of Major League Baseball in 1920 in the aftermath of the Black Sox scandal in which several members of the Chicago White Sox conspired with gamblers to fix the 1919 World Series.
Landis’ first act as commissioner was impose a lifetime ban on the players involved in the gambling scheme even though they were exonerated in court.
In banning Sterling, Silver made it clear that whether it’s player or owner, no one is above the league enough to run afoul of its rules or to damage its brand.
“My message to Clippers fans is league is far bigger than any one owner, any one coach, any one player,” Silver said. “This institution has been around for a long time and it will stand for a time.”