LeBron James said the above words on Saturday, the day most of the world learned about an audio recording that seemed to capture Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling saying some incredibly racist stuff. That was the league’s premier star — the reigning MVP, the face and voice of the game, the best player on the planet — saying clearly and directly that the NBA had to do something and had to do something quickly. “There is no room for Donald Sterling in our league,” LeBron said.
That sentiment was echoed again and again by players, coaches, other owners. It spilled over into the advertisers who cut ties with the Clippers; it dominated the discussions happening during the ongoing NBA playoffs; and it was echoed by organizations outside the league.
And on Tuesday afternoon, the audio recording and an extended version revealing a litany of vile statements still fresh in our minds, NBA commissioner Adam Silver said that the league agreed. Silver sternly announced what seemed to be the harshest possible punishment: Sterling would be banned from the league for life, fined the maximum amount allowed and, if possible, forced to sell the franchise, Silver said.
Silver was unequivocal in his stance, speaking of his personal outrage and his disgust with the comments. He said what had been said by so many others in the three days leading up to his announcement: Sterling’s views “are deeply offensive and harmful,” he said. “They simply have no place in the NBA.” (Silver also noted that Sterling “acknowledged it was his voice on the tape” during an interview, so I suppose we can drop the “allegedly” now.)
The reaction to the announcement says it all: Silver, just shy of his three-month anniversary on the job, was roundly praised by active players, former players, owners and commentators. Players applauded in hotel rooms and owners pledged their support; the Clippers, the team still owned by Sterling, released a statement supporting the decision and revamped their site to send a clear message.
Sterling’s ban from the NBA was effective immediately, Silver said, barring him from any NBA games, practices, any Clippers facility and any personnel decisions. Sterling will also be fined $2.5 million dollars, the largest amount allowed under the NBA’s (secret) constitution, Silver said.
A few people jumped at the chance to point out that $2.5 million is next to nothing for a man reportedly worth $1.9 billion, which is pedantry for the sake of pedantry. Of course the fine wasn’t going to significantly bite into Sterling’s finances. But the $2.5 million will be going to anti-discrimination organizations selected by the NBA and its players, according to Silver, organizations that will surely not dismiss it for being a paltry share of Sterling’s wealth. (That wealth, by the way, is only going to skyrocket if the team is sold to Magic Johnson or any other interested party; it could go for at least $700 million and possibly much more.) And in any event, the ban is clearly not the point. The man was just escorted off of the NBA’s premises and told never to return.
On his 87th day as commissioner, a job he took over from David Stern in February, Silver did something his predecessor never managed to do despite years of Sterling’s appalling behavior: He rid the league of an owner who heckled his own players, who was accused in sworn testimony of saying atrocious things and who was sued by NBA legend Elgin Baylor for what Baylor called decades of racist behavior.
Silver said that in deciding this punishment, they didn’t take into account Sterling’s past, but said that “a lifetime of behavior” would be factored into the vote determining if Sterling will be ousted. That was an awkward undercurrent at Silver’s news conference, the recurring reminder that Sterling’s history was no secret. Silver said that the NBA acted when specific evidence was brought forward, noting that he couldn’t “speak to past actions” (in this case, the inaction of his predecessor and of the owners over the preceding years). That past, including Baylor’s accusations, “concerned us greatly,” Silver said, but he noted that Sterling wasn’t punished by the league in that case because Baylor lost the lawsuit.
Of course, now attention turns to what comes next. It’s unclear if Sterling will actually go quietly. Jim Gray of Fox News said that Sterling told him shortly before Silver’s announcement (when a couple of erroneous reports said the punishment would be an indefinite suspension) that Sterling “will not be selling the team.” Yet it’s also unclear if Sterling will have much of a choice, as Silver said that owners have the authority to remove an owner with a three-quarters vote and didn’t seem to doubt the votes were there. “I fully expect to get the support I need from the other NBA owners to remove him,” Silver said.
Silver wasn’t wrong. In the hours after the news conference, NBA owners rushed to express their support for the punishment and for the move to force Sterling to sell. In facing his first crisis as commissioner, and probably the league’s biggest crisis since the Tim Donaghy officiating scandal, Silver represented a league that seemed unified in their disgust at the comments and united by their support for his response.