The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Adam Silver was the ‘good’ commissioner. Why waste that defending bad guys?

Following the Robert Sarver suspension, Adam Silver is facing the kind of backlash he has largely dodged during his eight-year run as NBA Commissioner. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Adam Silver is having his Roger Goodell moment. He’s discovering how it feels to have his body language dissected by those who distrust even the micro shrugs of powerful men. When he speaks haltingly or stumbles over his syllables while defending the indefensible, his shilling has been interpreted as a sign of weakness. He’s discovering what it’s like, finally, to have his every public moment scrutinized.

And these are new critics. Not the people already lined up in that tired and disingenuous camp who clutch their pearls any time the league reveals itself as pro-Black empowerment and who therefore seize on any sign of moral hypocrisy. No, Silver is receiving body blows from his constituents, the ones he has spent his entire tenure as NBA commissioner courting.

In 2014, he won them over with strong and decisive actions by banning Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, his first big move after years of working as David Stern’s underling. Now Silver is losing their trust and support with his handling of the punishment given to Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver. By love-tapping Sarver with velvet gloves and asking the public to take a full measure of a middle-aged man who willingly spewed racist language and made life hell for women in the workplace, Silver has declared open season on himself.

“Read through the Sarver stories a few times now. I gotta be honest … Our league definitely got this wrong,” LeBron James tweeted Wednesday night.

Brewer: Robert Sarver is racist, sexist ... and so rich it doesn't matter

Hours later, Chris Paul, the Suns point guard and former National Basketball Players Association president, shared his thoughts in a series of tweets.

“Like many others, I reviewed the report. I was and am horrified and disappointed by what I read. This conduct especially toward women is unacceptable and must never be repeated,” Paul wrote. “I am of the view that the sanctions fell short in truly addressing what we can all agree was atrocious behavior.”

James and Paul — in messages that can only be viewed as orchestrated — joined the angry voices livid over Sarver’s one-year suspension and $10 million fine. And they left Silver looking nothing like the businessman with a beating heart he has been built up to be. Instead, he appeared to be just another sports commissioner fluent in Goodellese.

The criticism reached new decibels Wednesday after Silver’s news conference in New York City.

Silver didn’t help himself by mishandling a tough and direct question about why there would be a different standard for an NBA employee who would have been fired for the same offenses levied against Sarver — i.e. saying the n-word at least five times, making inappropriate sexual or genitalia jokes and overseeing a franchise the independent law firm that investigated the Suns deemed “a difficult place for women to work.”

NBA suspends Suns owner Robert Sarver for use of n-word, misogynistic comments

Silver spoke of the difficulties in taking someone’s team away from them and how the public shaming would do irreparable harm to Sarver’s reputation. But he also spoke of Sarver’s rights.

“There are particular rights here of someone who owns an NBA team as opposed to somebody who is an employee,” Silver said.

Rights? Sure. Someone who’s rich enough to buy an NBA franchise has the right to get away with being a reprobate and a bully.

But of course that’s not what Silver meant — which is why Mike Bass, the league’s communications boss, needed to play spin doctor and send a short statement attempting to clarify the commissioner’s words.

There was, however, no cleaning up Silver’s attempt to engender sympathy on Sarver’s behalf.

“I’d also say that I would like to think that all of us would want to be judged by the totality of everything they’ve done, good and bad. It may be that in certain cases something you’ve done is so bad, it doesn’t matter what all the other good things you’ve done,” Silver said. “But I think in this case, looking back over [Sarver’s] track record of hiring, his track record of support of particular employees, what the actual people said about him — remember, while there were these terrible things, there were also many, many people who had very positive things to say about him through this process.”

Silver suggests we view the totality of Sarver as an owner — the Suns employ the largest percentage of people of color in the NBA, although that now looks like a cover so that he can freely hurl the n-word around them. A similarly appropriate exercise would be weighing Silver’s eight-year run as commissioner in its totality.

Under Silver, the NBA workforce has found more lanes for free expression. It shouldn’t be considered a coincidence that with Silver as the leader of the league, coaches such as Stan Van Gundy, Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr became outspoken critics of former president Donald Trump following the 2016 election. When the reigning champion Golden State Warriors chose not to visit the White House in 2017, Silver said he was “proud” of the players speaking out on important matters. He once bragged about the NBA having the best relationship with its players of all American professional sports leagues. And recently, retirees Kevin Garnett and Kendrick Perkins hailed Silver as “the best f---ing commissioner” in sports.

The respect for Silver has extended to the fans. When most commissioners walk to the podium on draft night under a rain of boos, in 2014 Silver heard loud cheers, and he earned even more adoration with his surprising announcement the NBA would be ceremonially drafting Isaiah Austin, the former Baylor standout whose pro career stalled because of Marfan syndrome.

When Silver attended an early 2017-18 game in Philadelphia, one of the most hostile cities in the NBA, fans showered him with love. One asked for a selfie. Another asked Silver to take over the NFL.

But if Silver were overseeing America’s top sport, the moments when his good-guy advocacy falls short would receive even more blowback.

The NBA has become a leader on race issues, mental health and inclusion, for example, but it’s hard to explain it staging its 2019 All-Star Weekend to Charlotte. In 2017, Silver moved the game in response to North Carolina’s controversial HB2 law, which, among other things, required transgender individuals to use public restrooms that corresponded with the gender listed on their birth certificates. But the NBA’s glamour event returned to Charlotte, even though much hadn’t changed: A new state law went into effect that kept in place many of the same discriminatory practices.

Perspective from October: Sports commissioners are businessmen, not moral compasses. Stop hoping for more.

Then, after the Utah state legislature passed a bill that barred transgender athletes from competing in girls’ sports, Silver pivoted from the NBA’s earlier honorable stand and announced Salt Lake City would still host the 2023 All-Star Weekend.

It’s even harder to excuse the league’s initial handling of the Daryl Morey and China morass in 2019. The NBA first called Morey’s pro-democracy tweet about Hong Kong “regrettable,” which fired up political rivals, especially on the right, who criticized the NBA’s business ties with a dictatorship.

Although he has enjoyed eight years of unprecedented popularity — beloved by the players, who have his personal cellphone number, and well liked by fans, who have viewed him as a friend of the people — Silver has certain responsibilities as a commissioner. He always will be indebted to the bottom line and to the billionaires whose water he’s paid to carry.

And because Silver has largely avoided becoming a punching bag and has appeared to be a decent human being rather than a soulless propagandist, his errors stand out that much more. They make you wonder whether his moral compass is still his guide or whether his wealthy buddies sometimes dictate which way the wind is blowing.