A gold leadership moment for Adam Silver

After an NBA investigation into racially insensitive comments made by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, Commissioner Adam Silver announced Sterling is banned from the league for life. (Reuters)


He stood there tall and thin, a bald man with a quiet intensity, choosing his few words carefully and speaking them forcefully. They were authoritative and decisive: "personal outrage," "personally distraught" and, perhaps most important of all, "I apologize." They expressed a sense of character that we don't see enough from professional sports leaders, and they mattered because they were needed — by the players, by the fans, by the NBA — at a time when the clear ugliness of racism demanded a response that was equally clear.

They also mattered because of what they revealed about the man behind the podium. In Tuesday's press conference, Adam Silver, a 22-year veteran of the NBA but just three months into his job as commissioner, had both a historic decision on his shoulders and a rare opportunity to publicly define his leadership with integrity from the start.

Before a few days ago, most people didn't know who Silver was. Yet his call to ban the Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling from the league for life following a recording of offensive comments instantly changed that. The move has bought him great credibility among the NBA's players, as well as its fans, which should help set the tone for his tenure.

Unlike other head honchos in the world of professional sports, Silver hasn't been in the top job long enough for anyone to second guess his actions or judge them against what he's done before. In many ways, that's an advantage. No one can ask him if his tough stance on Sterling is a way to cement his legacy, as some have asked about Major League Baseball's Bud Selig and his tough steps to discipline Alex Rodriguez following a 16-year tenure that included baseball's "Steroids Era."

And no one is yet looking to compare Silver's reprimands of sports leaders with how he punishes players, as others are doing for the NFL's Roger Goodell. The eight-year commissioner of the National Football League began his tenure by instituting a personal conduct policy that took a hard line on players' behavior off the field. He's now being watched for how he'll punish Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay, who has been charged with driving under the influence and possession of a controlled substance.

That's not to say being new to the job made such a historic call any easier for Silver. The choice to ban Sterling from the league and attempt to force him to sell his team is reportedly unprecedented, and that's never a simple decision for a new leader in charge. Corporate sponsors were fleeing, players were planning a boycott, and the story was rapidly becoming a media sensation that threatened to overwhelm the sport's reputation in the midst of its critical playoff season. Any wrong move, or any appearance of hedging his bets, and the rookie Silver could have permanently stained his leadership of the NBA. No pressure or anything.

But he didn't make a wrong move. He didn't say the wrong words. Instead, Silver offered a rare combination of authority, candor and certainty that earned him not only the respect of the players of his league but applause from a nation hungry for leaders willing to do the right thing. Only time will tell if this moment will define the rest of his tenure, too. But as a way of establishing the tone and direction with which Silver intends to lead the league, Tuesday's press conference was pure gold.

Read also:

Roger Goodell's balancing act

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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