On Tuesday afternoon, speaking in what sounded like a prosecutor’s summation, NBA commissioner Adam Silver laid the greatest blow possible to rogue L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling.
From a perspective of the broader culture, this was a stop-what-you’re-doing-and-watch moment. This was one of those rare, scheduled instances when we get to come together to affirm our shared values.
People wanted a blow struck for goodness, and delivered in the language of a sermon. They wanted a good old public shaming. Mr. Silver was able to deliver that much, if little else.
Once the smoke clears in a day or two, it will become clear that this was no nuclear strike. It was a soft tap. That’s all the league is equipped to deliver.
Mr. Sterling is fined $2.5-million (U.S.). He’s worth $2-billion. If we adjust for the average net worth of a Canadian household, the NBA just docked Mr. Sterling 185 bucks.
He’s banned for life from participating in the business of his own business. Mr. Sterling’s greatest contribution to the day-to-day running of the team was watching games at courtside. Now he’ll do it at home. That must hurt.
Mr. Silver also urged the NBA Board of Governors to strip Mr. Sterling of his franchise. That would require a 75-per-cent vote in favour – or 22 of 29 other owners.
That is a very real, but also very fraught, threat.
The league will want to be sure of receiving a unanimous vote before taking that step, because even a single Nay will play in public like a vote for Donald Sterling and, therefore, a vote for racism.
If you are one of the owners of another team – some of them individuals, some corporations – this requires careful, cynical thought.
Mr. Sterling has broken no laws. What we are talking about here is hocus-pocusing up a (relative) morality clause that can be used selectively to push people out of the gilded herd. A good lawyer will advise you thusly – there is no such thing as a one-time exception.
Now think of it from Mr. Sterling’s blinkered perspective. He’s 80 years old. He’s so out of step with current culture he’s effectively a time traveller. The thing that matters to a man at that age and stage is his legacy.
The only way Mr. Sterling comes out of this retaining any self-respect (such as it is) is as a guy who went down swinging.
This didn’t end on Tuesday. All Mr. Silver did was raise the curtain on the second act. We’ll have to wait for the third for bodies to start dropping.
This whole mess is, on a very fundamental level, the NBA’s fault. They’re not alone in this. They’re just especially unlucky.
Beginning in the 1980s, sports became unhinged from market realities. Up until that point, teams were run as rational businesses. In many cases, the club was the owner’s only significant holding. If it lost money, he or she went broke. That A-to-B financial relationship encouraged good citizenship and a healthy awe of the league’s power.
Television changed that formulation. Suddenly, there was a guaranteed pot of money coming in, shared out equally. This encouraged a generation of misers, who were happy to field underfunded, losing teams in decrepit arenas and take their cut on the back end.
Mr. Sterling was an infamous member of that group. His reputation in business is as a man who buys and holds, real estate mainly.
He picked up the Clippers for $12.5-million in 1981. Under his cheapskate leadership, they became the most dysfunctional team on the continent. But the cash register continued to ring for Mr. Sterling.
While he was lurking under his metaphorical bridge, a new generation of owners emerged. These were the men who don’t care about business, as such. They already have more money than they can spend – people like Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen (net worth: $16-billion), Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov ($13-billion) and Mavericks owner Mark Cuban ($2.3-billion).
They’re not in this for the bottom line. What they want are glamorous toys. And what they want for their toys are trinkets. If forced to choose between winning and healthy financial stewardship, they prefer the former.
The Nets’ total revenue for the 2012-13 season was $190-million. Mr. Prokhorov is spending $190-million this year on player salaries. In the Adam Smith sense, that’s idiotic. When you’re bored and worth the GDP of a small country, why worry?
Increasingly, leagues have been turned over to individuals who do not care about fines or rules or the good of the collective. This is a burgeoning problem in every major league (outside the NFL), and most concerningly in international soccer.
The NBA wanted men for whom money was not an issue. It gave them the illusion of stability. They’ve encouraged the arms race for players, since nothing hypes the product like a LeBron-to-Miami swoop. They disastrously gerrymandered the movement of the game’s top point guard, Chris Paul, to Mr. Sterling’s Clippers, because they wanted two going concerns in their second-biggest market.
They’ve known all along what Mr. Sterling is. It only became a problem when he let other people know it as well. And because Mr. Sterling’s wealth separates him from the mundane concern of making a living, they cannot control him.
That’s on them. They’re reaping the public-relations whirlwind because of it. Tuesday’s feeble punishments do not cancel any hurricane alerts. This doesn’t end until Mr. Sterling is ejected from the league. And it doesn’t necessarily end there, either.
The problem going forward is simple and insoluble. Like most sports concerns in the world, the NBA has become a collection of foxes set amongst just one chicken – the league itself.