Banned for life

This was no slap on the wrist. This was the NBA’s “nuclear” option intended to send a clear message that bigotry has no place in American society, much less the world’s pre-eminent pro basketball league whose teams are composed overwhelmingly of black players.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver banned Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life from any association with the league. He also fined Sterling $2.5 million — the maximum allowed under the league’s bylaws — and initiated steps to force a sale of the team.

Rarely do the wheels of justice turn this swiftly. But the NBA is not a court of law. It doesn’t have to abide by the tenets of due process or the presumption of innocence. It has its own mechanism for dealing with conduct detrimental to the league, and Silver exercised the full might of his authority.

Silver sent the right message — the only message — about the “hateful opinions”  Sterling expressed in audio recordings released by TMZ over the weekend.

“They simply will not be tolerated,” the commissioner said in a press conference announcing the lifetime ban.

That the comments were made in private made no difference to Silver. “Whether or not they were made in private, they are now public and represent (Sterling’s) views,” the commissioner said.

Sterling, the longest-tenured owner in the NBA, came under fire after TMZ released an audio recording of a conversation he had with girlfriend. On the tape, Sterling can be heard scolding her for bringing blacks to Clippers games and posing for photos with them.

Silver said Sterling acknowledged that the voice on the recording was his but expressed no other views during a short investigation. That admission was enough for Silver to impose the harshest possible punishment. Sterling may not attend any games or practices or be involved in any business or player-personnel decisions pertaining to the Clippers. The $2.5 million fine will be donated to anti-discrimination groups with input from the players’ union.

Silver has only been on the job since February, replacing long-time commissioner David Stern. Before the press conference, ESPN legal analyst Lester Munson described Silver as a “brilliant” lawyer who would be “careful and meticulous” in his reasoning.

But Silver meted out the punishment with an emotional edge. He said he was “personally distraught” by Sterling’s behavior and issued a personal apology to Bill Russell, Magic Johnson and other “pioneers” of the game for Sterling’s “deeply offensive and harmful” comments.

Sterling has fought charges of racism in court. But his past didn’t factor into the lifetime ban, Silver told reporters. When “specific evidence” was brought to the league, it investigated and reacted appropriately, he said.

Silver’s actions exceeded expectations, but the punishment wasn’t excessive. The cold precision with which he addressed the problem reflects America’s ever-hardening stance against racism.

It’s wrong and it won’t be accepted.

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