NBA Players Missed a Huge Chance to Assert Power in the Donald Sterling Case

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NBA Players Missed a Huge Chance to Assert Power in the Donald Sterling Case
Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

They were oh-so-close. Steph Curry and Chris Paul, through players union intermediaries, discussed boycotting Game 5 of their first-round playoff series if NBA commissioner Adam Silver didn't come down hard enough on Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for tape-recorded remarks asking his girlfriend not to make public that she had black friends.    

Silver, of course, came down hard on Sterling. He announced a $2.5 million fine, lifetime banishment from any active league involvement and vowed to find a way to force Sterling to sell the franchise. And so the Warriors' and Clippers' players abandoned their plan not to play.

The players union, led by its current adviser, Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson, held a press conference and presided over a parade of speakers declaring what a great commissioner Silver already was proving himself to be and what a landmark day it was. Headlines trumpeted it all as if peace had been struck in the Middle East. The avalanche of congratulatory tweets from players, present and former, from far and wide, has not stopped yet. "Effusive" is a word that I try to use sparingly, but it certainly applies to the praise everyone and anyone remotely involved in Tuesday's pregame events has received. Short of ticker tape, it could've been mistaken for the celebration of a war coming to an end.

While I appreciate as much as anyone the sentiment behind all that transpired, I can't help think: What an absolutely wasted opportunity by the players.

Leverage in their relationship with the league's owners never has been easy to acquire, and here was a tungsten-fired car jack handed to them. Here was a chance to exact real change in the NBA's owner-player relationship, a chance to show the owners that the current group of players will not be divided and conquered the way they were just three years ago at the collective bargaining table, perhaps even a chance to force a profound shift in what the owners' team photo looks like. And what happened?

The biggest turnover in league history—that's what happened.

Think about the TV revenue and ticket and every other revenue stream that is at a premium during the playoffs, especially ones as exciting as these. Think about the public pressure to offer whatever restitution and change the players saw fit in light of the owners consorting with a man of Sterling's mindset. Imagine, for a moment, if Paul and Curry, as players union executives and leaders of their respective teams, announced that they would not be playing until Silver and the other 29 owners took a series of steps not only as penance for engaging someone such as Sterling as a business partner but to demonstrate that they are truly committed to making minorities in general, and African Americans in particular, part of the league's fabric at every level.

Step 1: The owners must immediately declare that they will indeed force Sterling to sell his franchise.

Step 2: Vow that a controlling interest in the franchise will be sold to a minority owner.

Step 3: No resource or cost will be spared to defeat Sterling, and all will be covered by the owners and not in any way transferred to or assumed by the players.

Step 4: Institute policy that should any other owner be found guilty of the discriminatory practices that Sterling has been in his personal business, that he would be compelled to sell his ownership stake as well.

Those are just off the top of the head of someone who doesn't have any skin in the game; my guess is that Paul and Curry could've quickly identified some other important elements to be rectified. The guiding principle would simply be to make the owners prove they don't share Sterling's view that they, not the players, are the reason for the league's success and existence.

Instead, the boycott was called off. Clippers center DeAndre Jordan actually denied in an interview after the game that the Clippers intended to participate. The chance to wield their power and show their solidarity turned into little more than the floating of a novel idea.

It would be laughable if it weren't so sad that Sterling is being drawn and quartered over private remarks that did no tangible harm and did not break any law, instead of the actions he took for years as a discriminatory landlord that were actually found to be both harmful and illegal.

I have every reason to believe that the outrage Silver expressed Tuesday was genuine, and I applaud him for taking such a forceful stand. But exactly what did he do?

Sterling is still the Clippers' owner. His fate still rests in the hands of the 29 other owners. If you think being publicly pilloried is inflicting some unprecedented pain, wake up. Sterling is a former divorce lawyer who has been publicly ridiculed for decades as the worst owner in all of sports. Hostility and indignation don't seem to faze him in the least. He has been crushed time and again in the court of public opinion and, by all appearances, it's difficult to see how it has changed or harmed him. The man never even stopped sitting courtside, nor looked the least bit concerned that someone might say something unkind in his direction.

Silver's remarks did not shift the forces of inequality in this world in any tangible way. They did, however, protect the brand and image that is the NBA, a brand and image that provides a bigger chunk of the revenue for the owners than it does for its 400-some players. By all accounts, mission accomplished. Silver had a very good day. The players? They missed their chance to have a historic one.

 

Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.

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