Sterling case, Silver's 1st test as NBA commissioner, needs swift resolution

Joe Flacco (USATSI)
Adam Silver has a big decision to make. (USATSI)

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The first enormous test for Adam Silver in his new job arrived before the third month of his commissionership ended -- during the probationary period to regular folks like you and me -- and just as the first round of these thrilling, competitive playoffs were heating up.

His predecessor, David Stern, is famously said to have once asserted that he knows where the bodies are buried. And one of the most persistent and reprehensible ghosts from the Stern era emerged for Silver to deal with Saturday.

Donald Sterling, long the laughable owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, for decades was the NBA's crazy uncle living in the attic. Then, the Clippers drafted Blake Griffin and were awarded Chris Paul after a trade sending him to the rival and championship-adorned Lakers was overturned by Stern. The Clippers are no longer a laughingstock, but a bonafide championship contender. 

A championship contender facing a big problem.

On Saturday, Sterling unfairly became the face of the league that has consistently scored with flying colors as one of the most diverse, open-minded workplace environments in the professional sports industry. It makes no sense, and there is much we don't yet know about this sordid affair. But if the NBA's investigation concludes that racially insensitive remarks attributed to Sterling in Saturday's TMZ report were accurate, then LeBron James -- the biggest star in the sport and reigning MVP -- couldn't have said it better.

"There is no room for Donald Sterling in our league," James said.

So first, it should be said that the comments attributed to Sterling in an audio recording obtained by TMZ represent nothing about what the NBA stands for or has demonstrated itself to be. Look at the rosters, the players' countries of origin, the diversity of backgrounds and lifestyles represented in the game. It was only a year ago this month when Jason Collins, now employed by the Brooklyn Nets, came out publicly as gay -- the first active player in the four major North American sports to do so.

With players from every corner of the world, the NBA was, in many ways, the ideal test case for an openly gay athlete. Now, in the midst of a renaissance on the court -- with ultra-competitive, aesthetically pleasing playoff games every night of the week -- the league has been thrust into the most unsavory of lights. 

And it has happened on Silver's watch. The new boss' honeymoon period officially ended on Saturday, when every news outlet, every studio show, every radio station and every one of Sunday's newspaper editions were stained by the kind of ugliness and derangement for which there is no justification.

So it was the following revelation from Silver that inspired the most confidence: That the league's investigation into Sterling's alleged comments to his girlfriend that she shouldn't post on social media that she's attending his team's games with minorities (including the great Magic Johnson) will move "extraordinarily quickly." A swift resolution is what this calls for, and Silver conveyed certainty that it would happen.

In exchange for Silver's adherence to the concept of due process, Sterling agreed not to attend the Clippers' playoff game Sunday against the Warriors in Oakland, Calif. There will be another game Tuesday at Staples Center, and Sterling typically would be seated courtside at that game. Asked about the prospect of that, Silver said, "We hope to have this wrapped up in the next few days."

"The core of the investigation is understanding whether the tape is authentic, interviewing Mr. Sterling, potentially interviewing the woman, as well, and understanding the context in which it was recorded," Silver said.

Clippers president Andy Roeser issued a statement Saturday questioning the authenticity of the recorded comments attributed to Sterling, but offered no denial. As for the possible motive, Roeser also asserted that the woman alleged to have recorded the remarks "is the defendant in a lawsuit brought by the Sterling family alleging that she embezzled more than $1.8 million, who told Mr. Sterling that she would 'get even.'"

Once Silver's investigators with the NBA's security department get to the bottom of all this, and if there is discipline to be administered, it becomes a matter of what authority the league and Sterling's fellow owners have at their disposal to punish him.

When Silver said on Saturday that the league has "broad powers" to discipline an owner for misconduct, he was referring to a clause in the NBA's constitution and by-laws that gives the commissioner authority to hand out discipline. It is similar to a clause in the uniform player contract in which the player agrees "not to do anything that is materially detrimental or materially prejudicial to the best interests of the team or the league."

What Silver made clear Saturday is that he is not a renegade who will act before the facts are apparent or before the authority he inherited from Stern is properly vested. He is big on process, which means that he will ensure that the NBA's Board of Governors (comprised of Sterling's fellow owners) and the appropriate ownership committees are very busy in the next few days.

Silver will study every detail of Major League Baseball's multiple suspensions of the late Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott over repeated racially insensitive remarks. He said on Saturday that he remembers those incidents as a baseball fan, but not as a sports executive. 

In February 1993, Schott was suspended for one year and fined $25,000 for "using language that is racially and ethnically offensive." The suspension came after a vote of baseball's Executive Council, which is akin to the NBA's Board of Governors. She was permitted to continue owning the team, but was forbidden to participate in personnel or business decisions. Schott was suspended again in 1996 for comments she made about Adolf Hitler, and in 1999 was forced to sell the team. She died in 2004 at age 75.

Baseball's first investigation of Schott's conduct took three months. Silver indicated on Saturday that the NBA's probe of Sterling's conduct could conclude in a matter of days. Whatever the outcome, Sterling's drain on the NBA's public image has been decades in the making.

"It's almost a gift to them to get him out, if this let's them get him out," one person involved in discussions with the league office on the Sterling matter told on Saturday.

If accurate and authentic, the comments overshadowing the NBA's postseason product on Saturday bear no resemblance to the reality that people who work in the sport witness every day. A ghost from the Stern era came back to haunt the new commissioner on Saturday, and the new commissioner must act -- swiftly and justly. As with anything else, the lawyers will sort it all out. The shame of it is that this kind of stain doesn't go away.

CBS Sports Insider

Ken Berger began covering the NBA when Kobe Bryant was a rookie. Somehow, he'll outlast him. Ken has multiple top-10 finishes in the APSE writing contest and one championship to his credit - the 2015 Metropolitan... Full Bio

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