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)

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver conducted himself with admirable firmness and precision in laying out for the media his NBA lifetime ban for Los Angeles Clipper owner Donald Sterling and a $2.5 M fine. He also indicated he would urge the owners to force a sale of the team, and later in the press conference said he was confident of getting the required ¾ vote to strip Sterling of his ownership. During the course of the interview he expressed outrage over the remarks and directly apologized to a list of African American players about whom Sterling had made racist remarks.

He was business- and lawyer-like, spitting out brief but responsive answers. Politicians should note this is how one does not make himself the issue and instead keep the spotlight on the offender and the remedy. The economic and public relations fall out from Sterling’s comments have been so stark and immediate that Silver merely expressed hope fans and corporate sponsors would come back to the NBA fold.

Most interesting, he noted the league was aware of previous lawsuits against Sterling but did not fine or suspend him because he prevailed in one and settled the other without a finding of guilt. It will be interesting to see if anyone spoke to Sterling or warned him after these events. Silver also made clear the owners would take the totality of Sterling’s record into account in deciding to strip him of the team.

There are several lessons here for politicians and leaders of all types:

  • First, act swiftly. On Saturday the tape of Sterling’s remarks surface; by Tuesday afternoon he was banned and fined.
  • Second, consult with others who may second guess what you are doing. Silver indicated he had been in constant touch with Kevin Johnson, Sacramento mayor, and several owners and had talked to a number of Clipper players.
  • Third, restate the message of the organization and make clear the offender violated the essence of the organization. Silver stressed the league is diverse, multi-ethnic and diverse and has no tolerance for Sterling’s remarks.
  • Fourth, make sure the punishment fits the crime. In taking stringent steps against Sterling and deciding to donate Sterling’s $2.5M to a charity that promotes diversity he shows he “gets it.”
  • Fifth, don’t take the bait. Silver was asked some questions that could have gotten him in hot water, including whether his Judaism made him especially sensitive to the offense. (Silver demurred and elegantly replied that he reacted “as a human being.”) He didn’t get ahead of himself, for example, by speculating what he would do if Sterling remained owner and a contract player wanted out.
  • Sixth, be forthcoming. He answered every question asked and covered a lot of ground in a relatively brief press conference, ensuring that the press will have plenty to talk about concerning the league’s swift response.

There is no perfect escape from a public relations firestorm. But Silver emerged unsinged in his first test, just months after taking over as commissioner. With the cooperation of the owners, he may have prevented his league from melting down and showed the country how a leader reacts to racism.