The first thing you noticed was the anger.
There was fire in Adam Silver’s eyes as he took the podium Tuesday afternoon. He was nearly shaking with rage. He used the word “distraught” multiple times to describe his feelings — not at what he was forced to do, but that anyone under his survey could possibly hold such disgusting morals as Donald Sterling does.
Silver was harsh and definitive, laying down a lifetime ban on Sterling as owner of the Los Angeles Clippers and announcing that he would seek approval from the other 29 NBA owners to force Sterling to sell the team. Minutes before Silver arrived to announce the league’s ruling in its investigation into the recorded racist rant that came to light last weekend, multiple reports indicated the NBA merely would institute an indefinite suspension and a $5 million fine.
It merely would have been a slap on the wrist for a confirmed and unrepentant bigot. And Silver would have none of it.
The lifetime ban was the only acceptable result here, plus the $2.5 million fine on top that is hardly worth mentioning. The fine was not the point. It was immaterial to both the mega-rich Sterling and to the punishment itself. The message was sent that Silver would not tolerate Sterling’s ideology in his league. Any amount of money pales in comparison.
This was the mainstream public’s first real look at Silver, who succeeded David Stern as commissioner in February. It was an early test of Silver’s leadership. Stern looked the other way for three decades while Sterling built a record of engaging in discriminatory business practices and just being a flat-out vile individual. Finally, there was proof. Finally, Stern was gone.
Finally, the NBA has a leader willing to do what had to be done.
A lot of people, who apparently find a surreptitious audio recording to be harder to digest than the opinions expressed in it, have decried the invasion of Sterling’s free speech rights. Immediately after Silver’s announcement, Twitter lit up with people first cheering his action, then predicting Sterling’s impending legal action.
Some of this could end up in court, but let’s be clear here: There is literally no protection for being racist when you hold the authority Sterling does over people’s livelihoods. Minorities work for his basketball team and — possibly against his wishes — live in his apartment buildings. It’s not about free speech when a person has such vast power to turn his opinions into actual, real-world consequences. That is why Sterling went to court on these matters again and again, always managing to sidestep blame by throwing money at the accusers.
What’s more, the NBA is not a court in the traditional sense. Hornets owner George Shinn was ostensibly ousted for being unable to pay his bills, but the sexual assault allegations against him were the nail in the coffin. With Shinn, as with Sterling, the NBA demonstrated that it can determine who is and who is not worthy of controlling one of its franchises.
But all that is secondary to the rage. You can’t be a fair-minded human being and have felt anything other than broiling anger while listening to that recording. Silver felt the same fury and felt little need to mask it Tuesday. As a commissioner, as a human being, he simply let that fury guide him to the right conclusion.