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Sterling Ban Shows Power of NBA Players

5 minute read

Malik Rose was caught off guard. The former NBA forward, who played 13 seasons before his career ended in 2009, expected NBA commissioner Adam Silver to issue an “indefinite suspension” to Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for his racist remarks caught on tape. That “indefinite” language would give Sterling some leeway to go on an apology tour, find some sort of public reformation and return to his courtside seat.

Instead, Silver banned Sterling from the NBA “for life” on Tuesday.

The difference is, to some degree at least, a matter of semantics: lifetime bans can be lifted. But it was a strong statement. From the podium at a closely watched news conference in New York City, Silver expressed great confidence in his convictions.

“The views expressed by Mr. Sterling are deeply offensive and harmful,” Silver added. “That they came from an NBA owner only heightens the damage and my personal outrage. Sentiments of this kind are contrary to the principles of inclusion and respect that form the basis our diverse, multicultural and multiethnic league.”

Rose, who was respected for both his on-court toughness and off-court intelligence and leadership, was impressed: “I mean, it’s crazy. It’s like Adam Silver is trying to win the MVP race.”

Yes, Silver won the day. But his decision may say as much about the changing nature of the NBA as it does about its new commissioner. In the NBA, the players have wielded tremendous power in recent years. If a star like Dwight Howard wants out of Orlando, or Carmelo Anthony wants out of Denver, they make it happen. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh wanted to play together and build a dynasty in Miami. They made it happen.

In the days after TMZ published audio of Sterling chastising his then girlfriend for bringing black people to Clippers games, the biggest current and former stars in the game — James included — condemned him in no uncertain terms. And Sterling paid the price.

What’s refreshing here is that the players wielded their power on an important social issue. Silver heard the voices of his players, nearly 80% of whom are African American. Sure, James blasting a racist owner doesn’t take the same courage as John Carlos and Tommie Smith raising a fist at the 1968 Olympics or Muhammad Ali losing his heavyweight title over Vietnam. But Rose, a former member of the negotiating committee for the players’ union, doesn’t believe stars would have made the same noise if this incident had happened a decade ago. “Superstars speaking out — more than ever, they understand the full scope of their power,” Rose said. “Strong, united players can affect change. I take great pride seeing that.”

National Basketball Players Association vice president Roger Mason said a group of players told Silver they were ready to boycott the playoffs if the commissioner didn’t take strong action against Sterling.

Now, Silver wants Sterling out of the NBA. He took Sterling’s punishment one step further than many had expected, recommending that the owners force Sterling to sell the team. Silver needs three-fourths of the owners to vote in favor of forcing the sale.

“I’ll let the lawyers lay out for you the provisions of our [league] constitution,” Silver said. “Let’s just leave it that we have the authority to act as I’ve recommended.” Silver is relying on Article 13(d) of the NBA’s constitution and bylaws, which states that ownership can be terminated if an owner “fail(s) or refuse(s) to fulfill its contractual obligations to the Association, its Members, Players, or any third party in such a way as to affect the Association or its Members adversely.”

Sterling’s racism, in Silver’s view, “adversely” affected the NBA brand enough to warrant this unprecedented action.

Silver also expressed confidence that he’d corral the necessary votes to force Sterling to sell. Twenty-nine teams have expressed support for Silver’s decision, ESPN reports. That support may not translate into votes for the sale.

But Silver seems to be gaining momentum. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, for example, had called a forcible sale of Sterling’s team, because of his personal views, a “slippery slope” that sets a dangerous precedent for legislating owner behavior. While Cuban condemned Sterling’s comments, he told the Associated Press that “regardless of your background, regardless of the history they have, if we’re taking something somebody said in their home and we’re trying to turn it into something that leads to you being forced to divest property in any way, shape or form, that’s not the United States of America. I don’t want to be part of that.” After Silver’s press conference, however, Cuban tweeted that “I agree 100% with Commissioner Silvers [sic] findings and the actions taken against Donald Sterling.” (Cuban did not return an email from TIME requesting clarification.)

During his news conference, Silver said Sterling expressed no denial, or remorse, about the comments on the tape. Silver said he had “no idea” if Sterling would fight the punishment.

“Based on his history,” says Cari Grieb, adjunct professor of sports law at the John Marshall Law School, “I expect him to litigate to the bitter end. This can be another A-Rod.”

And even if Silver and the NBA owners get their wish, and Sterling is forced to sell the team, the Clippers owner cashes in. His former longtime employee, NBA great Elgin Baylor, has said Sterling had a “vision of a Southern plantation-type structure” for the Clippers. And that mentality will line his pockets: Sterling bought the team for $12 million in 1981, and the purchase price for the franchise is sure to be north of $600 million.

“Yeah, it’s somewhat bittersweet that he could profit so much through his punishment,” says Rose. “But in all, it’s a happy day for the NBA.”

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com