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Somehow, in today’s world, we’re not accustomed to the kind of tough response that NBA Commissioner Adam Silver leveled against Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for racist remarks he made in a private conversation.
We are far more familiar with the scenario of people saying whatever they please, no matter how racially offensive their words might be, with little to no sanction against them except by the fleeting court of public opinion, and only within selected quarters.
In this age of Obama, incivility along racial and other lines has risen to uncomfortably dramatic levels. We’ve become accustomed to Republican-led legislatures around the country working with frenzy to turn back the clock, to work with all their might to diminish the African-American presence at the polls. We’re accustomed to young Black men being shot to death for nothing more than being young Black men and then watching a jury exonerate the killer.
And so, the response of the NBA commissioner was as gratifying as it was surprising. A brief suspension might have been more likely than what many might have expected or some sort of slap on the wrist. But Silver was as forceful as he possibly could have been, banning Sterling for life and pledging to work to remove him as an owner within the league.
“The views expressed by Mr. Sterling are deeply offensive and harmful,” Silver said in a press conference that was absolutely spellbinding. “We stand together in condemning Mr. Sterling’s views. They simply have no place in the NBA.”
As the world now knows, Sterling was recorded having conversations with a female friend in which he admonished her for associating publicly with Black people, a curious request to make of a woman who is herself half-Black. The recordings reveal not only a deep-seated racist streak within the Clippers owner, but also a jarring plantation mentality. He pats himself on the back for his ownership of a basketball team that allows Black players to have an income, clothing and homes. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that his fortune is being earned because of the players who fill the arena where his team plays.
In response, Silver unleashed what many have called the “nuclear option” with regard to the disgraced Clippers owner. He banned Sterling for life and fined him $2.5 million—the maximum amount allowed by the league’s constitution. Furthermore, Silver said he expected to encounter no problems whatsoever in getting the other team owners to approve ending Sterling’s ownership of the Clippers.
Silver’s resolve to make a forceful, bold statement was underscored at one point in the press conference when he was asked whether a negative precedent might be established by sanctioning an owner for comments made in private conversations. “They are now public,” Silver said, making the point that the fact that the world knows of his sentiments makes his role in the league utterly intolerable, whatever the context.
To see this kind of vigorous response to Sterling’s remarks is deeply encouraging. It comes in a season of American history when the highest court in the land strikes down the heart of the Voting Rights Act, which has protected the rights of many Americans to cast their ballots at the polls. It comes at a time when the first African-American president of the United States is heckled as a liar in a State of the Union message by a congressman who is rewarded by receiving accolades—and high campaign contributions—for his attack.
And so, Silver’s response is an unexpected and encouraging sign that there are still leaders in this country who are determined to do the right thing.