Adam Silver made the right call when he banned Donald Sterling for life. He also made the only call he could. Simply put, his players would tolerate no other outcome, for a number of very good reasons.
First, unlike many recent controversies, this case was not about words or political beliefs alone. As Jim Geraghty outlined in yesterday’s Morning Jolt (subscribe!), Mr. Sterling has a long and shameful history of racist and abusive acts, resulting in, among other things, substantial settlements in response to race-discrimination claims, allegations of unprofessional behavior made by a number of players, and a history of poor treatment of his former GM, Elgin Baylor, one of the league’s pioneering black superstars. In other words, Mr. Sterling’s words were a mirror of his actions.
Second, prior to the NBA’s announcement, the league had actually empowered Mr. Sterling. As NBA fans know, he’s been the worst owner in the league for decades, and the team’s current success is largely due to former commissioner David Stern’s extraordinary decision to block Chris Paul’s trade to the Los Angeles Lakers, sending the NBA’s best point guard to the Clippers instead. This single action overcame decades of dreadful personnel decisions and vaulted the Clippers to contender status — in spite of Sterling’s negligence and indifference to his team’s success.
Third, Sterling’s latest outburst was motivated by none other than Magic Johnson’s presence at a Clippers game. Magic Johnson is more than “just” one of the greatest players in league history. Johnson, along with Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan, is more responsible for increasing the value of the Clippers franchise than Donald Sterling is. Simply put, Johnson helped rescue the NBA from its late 1970s path to oblivion and transformed it into a global asset. The values of even the worst-performing franchises have soared — just watch the bidding war likely to erupt if Sterling is forced to sell his team.
In other words, Sterling was a racist, discriminatory free-rider on the talents and effort of the very man he wanted excluded from Clippers games.
As a long-time NBA fan, and — more important – as a parent trying to teach my kids (including my African-American youngest daughter) the right response to racism and discrimination, I was impressed by the dignity and forcefulness of the players’ response. They were rightfully fed up with Donald Sterling and the league’s history of empowering and enabling his abuses, and they appropriately used their considerable moral and economic power to mandate the end of Sterling’s discriminatory and incompetent NBA career.