7:01 PM EDT, April 29, 2014
New NBA commissioner Adam Silver apparently is not one to waste words, or the opportunity to show who's boss.
He certainly wasted no time upending all the experts and legal analysts who were predicting that he would take a measured approach to punishing Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for the caught-on-tape comments about African Americans that sparked a painful new national debate on race in America.
Silver walked up to that podium in midtown Manhattan on Tuesday afternoon and needed just a couple of minutes to express the NBA's righteous outrage and say that he was banning Sterling from the league for life while initiating a process that he believes will compel Sterling to sell his team.
There is some question whether the NBA charter allows the other owners to force Sterling to give up the Clippers for a non-fiduciary offense, but that isn't the point. Silver's job was to send the right message to every constituency in the NBA — the players, the owners, the fans — and he succeeded, even if it's fair to point out that he was never far from the helm while Sterling was exhibiting all sorts of questionable behavior over the past couple of decades.
This is a mess that required immediate clean-up and you have to give Silver credit for initiating an investigation, acquiring an admission of guilt from Sterling and delivering a disciplinary haymaker in the space of three days. After Sterling replaced noted disciplinarian David Stern as commissioner in February, what better way to show there's a new sheriff in town who is just as tough as the old one?
Is the world a better place because a geriatric billionaire who grew up in the pre-civil rights era got slam-dunked on Tuesday by an angry young commissioner determined to look strong and decisive handling his first major crisis?
That's a question for the sociologists and cable news commentators.
Will the NBA be in a better place because Sterling has gone from being one of its dirty little secrets to becoming an embarrassment of international proportion and now is in the process of being banished from the league forever?
The answer to that is unequivocally in the affirmative.
Sterling deserved the lifetime ban and the biggest possible fine that the NBA is empowered to levy against one of its owners. He deserves to be run out of the league for his racists comments — regardless of how they became public — and he would be wise to go quietly, though people like him seldom do.
Silver could have moved more incrementally. He could have levied an indefinite ban while he worked behind the scenes to gain a strong consensus from the other 31 owners, especially after Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban publicly expressed reservations about expelling a fellow owner for comments unbecoming.
The brand-new commissioner could have done that, but he correctly calculated that even a moment of seeming indecision would have squandered an opportunity to remove any doubt about his crisis management skills and show the league's players — three out of every four of whom are African-American — that they have a strong champion in the central office.
There will be plenty of talk in the coming weeks about the implications of this ruling. The notion that a private citizen could be forcefully divested of his property for expressing an unpopular or offensive opinion in private would seem to run counter to the principle of freedom of speech and thought that is a cornerstone of American society, but this is not a First Amendment issue.
No one is subject to governmental sanction for making racially insensitive remarks, but Sterling is part of a private consortium in which each partner contractually agrees to be subject to the discipline of the group, so Silver was well within his rights as commissioner to levy the lifetime ban and $2.5 million fine for conduct detrimental to the best interests of the the league.
With several major corporations backing out of sponsorship agreements with the Clippers and the controversy disrupting the NBA postseason, that isn't a very hard case to make.
The ability to force Sterling to sell his team might be another story, and a long, drawn-out one at that. Silver clearly is hoping that the lifetime ban and the public outrage will make Sterling recognize that there is no point in keeping his ownership interest, but Sterling is a very rich man who can afford to put up a protracted legal fight.
For the moment, however, Silver has claimed the high ground.
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" on Friday mornings at 9 on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.
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