Donald Sterling’s Lifetime Ban and the NBA’s New Power

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver holds a press conference to discuss Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling at the Hilton Hotel on April 29 in New York Photograph by Elsa/Getty Images

The National Basketball Association banned its longest-tenured team owner for life. The league’s new commissioner, Adam Silver, announced the unprecedented move against Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling during a news conference in which he also levied the maximum allowable fine of $2.5 million and, most important, urged the league’s other owners to force Sterling to sell the team. These are strong measures taken days after a recording of Sterling’s racist remarks came to light. Here’s a look at what just happened:

1. This is the most that could be done. Before the announcement, I was one of many who questioned whether Silver could or would attempt to force Sterling out. My mistake was assuming something that had never happened before would not happen now. Silver has done the absolute most that his power as NBA commissioner allows, and he has stretched into the fullest extent of his authority less than three months after assuming the role.

2. The new commissioner is not a shrinking violet. Before today, the consensus on Silver was that he is a kinder, gentler version of his predecessor, David Stern. It’s a notion that Silver himself has perpetuated by joking about Stern’s temper and accentuating how the job of NBA commissioner has changed in the last three decades from “cop on the beat” to chief executive officer. But then Sterling, who’s owned the Clippers since the early 1980s and is seemingly a creature from another century, presented Silver with perhaps the dirtiest piece of business any commissioner has ever had to take on. The room that Silver faced today for the news conference in New York was as intense as any he is likely to see, and he handled it with calm assurance. In his opening statement, the commissioner referred to Sterling as “that man.” It was a professional execution.

3. The pressure is now on the team owners. The decision to force Sterling out rests with the other 29 owners, and it will take a three-quarters supermajority to terminate his ownership. On Monday, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban questioned the wisdom of voting out a fellow owner because of the precedent it would set. Silver, who said he did not poll the owners ahead of time, concluded the press conference with this: “I fully expect to get the support I need from the other NBA owners to remove him.” That’s a direct challenge. The vote is private, but every owner will be asked how he voted.

4. Due diligence is flexible. Silver is a lawyer by training. He’d no doubt prefer to have had more than three days to investigate the recordings released on TMZ and Deadspin. But with President Obama, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and LeBron James on the long list of those offended, and sponsors bolting for the exits in Los Angeles, he didn’t have the luxury of time. Silver said that David Anders of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz concluded the investigation late Monday night. He also said Sterling “acknowledged it was his voice on the tape.” Within the private fiefdom of the NBA, that’s enough.

5. This time was different. There was more than one question at the news conference about why the NBA hadn’t done anything before today, given the long history of public allegations over Sterling’s racist conduct. Silver was effectively being asked to answer for Stern, and he suggested there was nothing the league could do until now. NBA legend and former Clippers President Elgin Baylor lost the wrongful-termination suit in which he accused Sterling of running the team like a plantation. And Sterling never admitted wrongdoing when he settled housing-discrimination cases with the U.S. Department of Justice. Silver’s answer was a lawyerly one, but also true. Stern never had a recording of Sterling saying terribly racist things. If he had, you can bet he would have brought the hammer down, too.

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