Silver's 'nuclear' reaction to Sterling creates owner-player power shift
As the fallout continues, an examination of a shifting power dynamic with financial, racial, and labor-relations dynamics.
The impact event has occurred, now comes the fallout. In the event of Adam Silver "going nuclear" on Donald Sterling Tuesday by banning the Clippers owner for life and directing the Board of Governors to vote him out of ownership, the vibrations from the events of the past five days have not only uncovered a number of uncomfortable truths about our culture and the NBA in regards to race, but have considerably affected the future of the sport.
Or to put it simply, the Sterling event may have changed the balance of power between ownership and the players.
The NBA players' union historically exists somewhere between the juggernaut of the MLBPA (guaranteed non-cap limited contracts) and the pathetic mess that is the NFLPA. (The NFLPA literally cannot protect its players' own health in a legal sense, and despite playing the most violent of the major sports, players do not possess guaranteed contracts; who is running this thing?). It established guaranteed contracts and has capitalized on its star power, but has struggled in a number of areas (like every sports union has), such as pensions, the continued rollbacks of the players' share of basketball-related income in CBA negotiations, and the overall dynamic between players and owners.
But Adam Silver's action Tuesday, moving beyond David Stern's historical directive of always protecting ownership, signals a shift, or at least a potential shift, in that balance. The players reacted with overwhelming enthusiasm at Silver's decision and the emotional and impassioned way he delivered the hammer Tuesday. Silver didn't just issue punishment based on legal or public relations implications, but out of what appeared to be a genuine imperative on his part to act as an advocate for the players. Or in the words of Kevin Johnson:
“On this day, Adam Silver is not only the owners’ commissioner, he is also the players’ commissioner and we’re proud to call him our commissioner.”
What lies beyond that is what starts to stir the pot. Silver spoke with both Chris Paul and Kevin Johnson before Tuesday's announcement and based off multiple reports, the players indicated they intended to boycott the game if sufficient punishment wasn't issued. TNT reported Tuesday that not only were the Warriors and Clippers in agreement on the boycott, but players for the other teams in action Tuesday were prepared to make the same statement. The result would have been catastrophic for the league in terms of revenue, PR, everything.
So did the threat impact Silver's decision? Kevin Johnson doesn't believe so.
A boycott was never mentioned in my conversations with Commissioner Silver.— Kevin Johnson (@KJ_MayorJohnson) April 30, 2014
Commissioner Silver made his decision not because of a threat, but because it was the right thing to do.— Kevin Johnson (@KJ_MayorJohnson) April 30, 2014
Quite frankly, our expectations were exceeded.— Kevin Johnson (@KJ_MayorJohnson) April 30, 2014
We'll never know, but I lean towards no, that the idea of a boycott did not enter into his decision. This was Silver, making a bold statement on ethical grounds. There had been indications as far back as last year, in Silver's statements about his intentions upon taking over the job as commissioner, that he recognizes the job as more than just perfunctory leader subject to ownership's will. He's expressed several times the importance of the commissioner's office as the leader for the sport of basketball, the culture of basketball, and the NBA's place as the global face of the sport. His decision and actions Tuesday weren't about executing what the league has independently found to be appropriate action, nor delivery of the owners' collective wrath. Instead, it was a bold proclamation that in fact his office is empowered to take action in pursuit of what's best for basketball, and that means not only fostering an environment of diversity and cultural acceptance, but acting in the best interests of the players.
And that's where things get tricky.
It should be noted at the outset that the NBA has every reason to be proud of the remaining 29 league owners. Support was unanimous, vocal, and at times very raw. Before Silver's statement was issued, Rockets owner Leslie Alexander publicly pushed for this kind of action. Ownership, in a move that goes against its best interests, put what's right for the NBA first. Yes, covering this PR nightmare up in the mushroom cloud dropped on Sterling Tuesday has benefits for them, but they knew the impact of empowering, or at least not standing in objection to Silver's assertion of this kind of authority over ownership, was the right thing to do. That needs to be stressed.
The owners did the right thing here.
However, beyond that is the complicated matter that touches on a long-boiling conflict that has always been carefully moved to the margins in pursuit of avoiding how hot the topic is. In short, a majority white ownership group has long resisted the idea that the commissioner's office should do anything but act in the owners' best interest and follow the owners' will, and that that balance of power should rest with them, and not with the players who are are, in fact, largely black. The dynamics of this are not race-driven but money-driven -- it's simple employer-labor politics that can be traced back to the beginning of organized labor.
But you cannot get around the reality of the racial dynamic in this. The NBA commissioner has effectively destroyed a majority owner's control of his own franchise in pursuit of making a more perfect NBA through the protection of diversity and racial equality, and at the advocacy of a majority black players contingent. Even with minority ownership increasing consistently with owners like Michael Jordan and Vivek Ranadive, the racial dynamics of ownership are lost on the players, nor is their understanding of a majority-white media covering their sport and these issues, as is the case in this article.
Tuesday represented a precedent of the Commissioner's office standing with the players against an owner, even if the other owners, the media, and the majority of the global community stood with him against Sterling. That's still a dynamic that when removed from the specifics of the case and the emotion of the racial component, could make owners uncomfortable. There's a reason Mark Cuban was so specific in his carefully worded support of Silver before and after the decision. Punish and remove Sterling by all available means of the NBA Constitution, but do not exceed that mandate.
It's not about the racial component for ownership, despite skeptics' fear that more of ownership feels the same way Sterling did, to any extent. It's about protecting their side of the power balance which they have worked very hard to maintain and strengthen.
Set against this backdrop is the next CBA negotiation, which the players and owners can opt out for in 2017. When the new cap projections were delivered weeks ago, they showed a consistent improvement over even expected increases in revenue. CBA expert Larry Coon broke down the possible effects on that negotiation.
So what’s going to happen in 2017? The circumstances are entirely different now. Most or all teams are now profitable, thanks to the changes they negotiated in the new agreement, Franchise values have skyrocketed (theMilwaukee Bucks, the least valuable team in the league, is about to sell for around $550 million, which Mark Cuban calls “a bargain”). And on top of that, the league is about to receive a windfall of new cash in the next TV deal.
So it’s no longer a matter of ceasing operations because they can’t afford to play another season under the existing system — now it’s a matter of figuring out how to split the pie equitably so they can all keep the money rolling in.
My prediction is that the players will opt out of the agreement in 2017 because they will feel they gave back in 2011, the system is now fixed, there’s a lot of new money rolling in, the teams are now making money hand over fist, and they will want to regain some of their previous concessions as well as receive their fair share of the new money. Further, the league will be more obliged to give it to them.
Consider that the NBPA has been led into what has amounted to disaster over the last 10 years, as the findings in the investigation into now-ousted-executive-director Billy Hunter indicated. They have lacked commitment from the players, strong leadership, smart ideas, and people invested in running the organization who aren't outside the players. Andre Iguodala spoke strongly after the Hunter debacle about the need to get people solely interested in the players involved. (Hunter was not a former player, nor are the agents pushing for their own involvement.) But Mayor Kevin Johnson, who has gained major visibility as a voice for the players in this process? He is a former player.
So now you have the possibility of stronger leadership in Kevin Johnson (who already people are clamoring to be given the Executive Director position if his duties as mayor of Sacramento allow), potentially stronger leadership in Chris Paul, and a player base which for the first time has seen its very real power in this equation (as opposed to the theoretical it has always been portrayed as), and that is now strongly and emotionally driven by the Sterling situation.
The odds are that this will cool and the players will remain too preoccupied with their own lives to mobilize. But if nothing else, Silver's actions and the NBPA's response through this situation have illustrated the possibility of ramifications we're not aware of. This new role from the commissioner could help pave the way for a smoother process to get past a 2017 negotiation. It could shift the aggressiveness of the NBPA in pursuit of making gains back from that they lost in the 1999 and 2011 lockouts. There's no way to know, and those are fascinating questions we'll be examining in the future.
But for now, the facts are clear. Silver went nuclear on Sterling with the backing of both players and ownership, setting a new path for Silver beyond David Stern's interpretation of the office, the players learned something very real about the power they hold, and the NBA will not be the same after this.
And yet everyone can agree that with Sterling gone, it's changed for the better.
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