The glare of the spotlight centers on new NBA Commissioner Adam Silver as he responds to the pressure to punish wayward Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. The viral racist audio rant by Sterling toward his girlfriend V. Stiviano has created a groundswell of opinion to sanction the owner in swift and harsh fashion. Anything short of ordering Sterling to sell the team could subject Silver and the league to criticism; however, Silver’s power to order a sale is limited by the organizing documents of the NBA.
The NBA Constitution and Bylaws create certain powers for the commissioner. The leader of the league is employed by the owners as a group. In effect, Silver works for Sterling. By virtue of the league documents, the owners hand over certain powers with respect to their businesses to the commissioner. The NBA Constitution is not a public document, although those who have seen it say that the commissioner report that the head of the league may require a sale if the team breaches a significant obligation such as a default under an arena lease. Although the statements allegedly made by Sterling are racist and reprehensible, they do not fall into the types of actions allowing a commissioner sale order.
Further complicating Silver’s decision making calculus is that the statements made by Sterling were not made in a public forum or an interview. The Clippers owner was complaining to his girlfriend. The situation is far different than the Al Campanis interview on Ted Koppel’s show years ago in which the Los Angeles Dodgers general manager said that African Americans lacked certain “necessities” for running a team. Ignoring for the moment that Campanis was a Dodgers employee and not an owner, the situation was also different because the GM made a public statement on television. The Dodgers relieved Campanis of his duties shortly after the interview. Silver does not have the same flexibility.
The firestorm of criticism and condemnation creates pressure for Adam Silver, who just tried on his new commissioner shoes, to punish Donald Sterling severely. Short of ordering a sale, punishment could include a suspension, a fine or some sort of action regarding the Clippers’ draft picks or player contracts. The harsher the punishment, the more likely the league will become entangled in litigation with Sterling. A fine may not be appropriate due to Sterling’s wealth. While paying the league a substantial sum would bother the owner, he no doubt could pay up without hampering his ability to shower gifts on his next girl toy. A suspension may not mean much for an owner, he does not play in the games. He merely loses the ability to show off his team to his next girlfriend at games. One suggestion is to allow the players to leave the team after the season, but that sanction could also punish Clippers fans if Sterling digs in his heals and does not sell the team.
The NBA remains the most progressive major sports league in terms of race relations. The NFL has few black head coaches and executives in positions of power. The NBA is considered a better platform for equal opportunity. Adam Silver, in his initiation to the commissioner club, faces pressure to punish Donald Sterling to save the league’s reputation. The harsher the punishment, the more likely the league will face extended litigation. The lighter the punishment, the more likely the fans and players will react negatively. Silver needs to find the punishment sweet spot in a hurry.
Commentary by William Costolo