NEW YORK -- As we await NBA commissioner Adam Silver's announcement of the league's findings in its investigation of Clippers owner Donald Sterling, a point about the basis of whatever decision he reaches cannot be overstated.
One of the most vexing questions about the Sterling case has been why the owner had never been disciplined for past behavior. Sterling had been a defendant in two housing discrimination lawsuits, and though both were settled, testimony contained accusations that Sterling had used racially insensitive language. Also, in a 2003 sworn deposition during a lawsuit he had filed against a Beverly Hills woman, Sterling admitted having paid the woman for sex.
The NBA did nothing, at least not publicly, to discipline him.
Which brings us to the key point -- addressed here -- in examining the breadth if Silver's power and possible justification for taking action against Sterling if the recorded comments in this case are authenticated as his own. When Silver was asked on Saturday why Sterling had never been disciplined before, the commissioner said: "I can't speak to the past as to why decisions were made."
The NBA's Constitution and By-Laws, a private document, vests power solely with the commissioner to mete out discipline for various broad behavior or in specific, narrowly defined instances. Silver was not the commissioner of the NBA, and thus did not possess those powers when Sterling was embroiled in his various lawsuits. But Silver is the commissioner today, and most certainly has those powers now.
When it comes to the recorded comments, if authenticated as Sterling's, there can be no bounds to the moral outrage. But as far as the sole justification for severe disciplinary action -- which could range from a suspension and fine to a forced sale, depending on the wording of the Constitution and By-Laws and Silver's interpretation of his powers -- it becomes complicated and problematic. As outrageous as the comments were, they were made privately -- not publicly. All the owners, not just Sterling, are motivated to protect their own interests in their NBA teams and be wary of a precedent being set for the commissioner overreaching his power.
Which is why Sterling's personnel file, so to speak, becomes such an important potential vehicle upon which to base disciplinary action. No, Sterling was never disciplined by commissioner David Stern for past transgressions. But David Stern is no longer the commissioner; Adam Silver is.
Just something to think about as the sports world awaits a monumental decision from the commissioner, on his 88th day in office.