NBA out of balance now/Michael Bleach
Let’s pretend for a second. Spring is finally here. The birds are chirping. The flowers are blooming. The grass looks like actual grass, not the aftermath of a mosh pit at Lollapalooza. Perhaps you go for a walk. Perhaps on your way to a local high school track meet, or softball game.
(I did say let’s pretend.)
Either way, you are ambling along on this fine April day, taking in sights winter had erased from your memory. Sidewalks. Other people. Spring jackets. Look, a squirrel!
And as you are breathing in all these life-affirming wonders, as you finally overcome the winter doldrums, you step in the biggest, smelliest pile of dog (four-letter word removed by editor) a man has ever laid eyes on.
That is the situation the NBA finds itself in right now with the emergence of (more) evidence that Donald Sterling is a racist, sexist, bigoted, full blown Nutter Butter easier imagined as a plantation owner than L.A. slumlord.
After the overlong 82-game regular season, professional basketball was finally getting to the good part. An interesting first round of the playoffs, the possibility of a Heat three-peat, Shaq and Sir Charles on TV – and the NBA stepped right into a Donald Sterling defecation.
And like you, hapless walker futilely poking at your shoe with a stick as the olfactory sensations trigger your gag reflex, there is no clear solution. Only a mess and host of messy options.
Just like our forefathers envisioned when they penned the first-ever collective bargaining agreement, professional sports leagues have (often begrudgingly) shaped their way around a system of checks and balances.
Salary caps, contracts, roster limits, bonuses, free agency, trades, holdouts – all have come about as a way to balance power between labor and management.
If a player underperforms, he can be cut. If a coach underperforms – or is Mike Brown – he can be fired. If a general manager builds a team designed to win 15 games in a good draft year – he gets an extension.
The system is not perfect, but you get the idea.
But what check is there for a bad owner? How do you balance something like Donald Sterling?
Ahhhh. Usually, you don’t. Or can’t.
Theoretically, that is the NBA and new commissioner Adam Silver’s job. But Silver works for the good ol’ boys club, not the other way around. And few groups are fiercer at protecting their own than the obscenely rich chubby white men conglomerate. So owners – such as Jeffrey Loria (MLB), Dan Snyder (NFL) and James Dolan (NBA) – of all ilks stick around as long as their checks keep cashing, no matter how obviously damaging they are for the league.
But Sterling should be the exception to the norm.
Sterling has been the worst owner in American sports history of the last 30 years. I doubt anyone disputes that. His team has the lowest winning percentage of any franchise in baseball, basketball, football or hockey. All the while, Sterling has had sexual harassment, employee discrimination and housing discrimination suits filed against him.
Sports Illustrated once published a cover feature titled “The worst franchise in sports history (and the man responsible).”
That issue was published FOURTEEN YEARS AGO.
Still Sterling persists.
There is a long, overdue check that must be administered. The system is out of balance.
The ONLY move Silver has left at this point is to throw the book at Sterling, and then whip the pen at him for good measure.
Legally, there are questions about how much the league can do. Is the TMZ audio illegal (probably)? What rules, if any, did he break in the NBA’s cryptic rulebook? How would this play out in court?
But Silver’s job (an unenviable one to be sure) is to find some way, any way to remove Sterling from the league. Not because of any moral incentive – which the NBA does not care about – but because Sterling has moved the conversation past the tipping point.
During free agency, the NBA draft, re-signing his own players, Sterling’s racism will loom or everything. Nothing has changed about Sterling. He has always been a terrible person. But now the extent of his repugnance is forever in the public eye.
It seems like a bad business model to have a boss who hates black people working in a league that is over 75 percent black.
There is (admittedly limited) precedence for removing an owner.
Former Cincinnati Reds majority owner and Hitler sympathizer Marge Schott was pressured out by MLB and Reds minority owners after repeated instances of her craziness came to light. Ted Stepien, the former Cleveland Cavaliers owner, was finessed out of the league after he nearly destroyed the Cavs with his bad decisions.
Silver must find a similar path with Sterling.
The NBA will be out of balance until he does.