Polishing the Silver, Tarnishing the Sterling
I confess that I enjoyed myself immensely during the recent controversy over Donald Sterling’s racism. Each day brought new pleasures. The story began with the initial leak, on the gossip site TMZ, of secretly recorded conversations between the 80-year-old billionaire owner of the Los Angeles Clippers and (this is her actual name) V Stiviano, Sterling’s 31-year-old mistress. What caused the uproar were certain racist sentiments expressed on tape by Sterling, ugly and retrograde opinions that were, at the very least, inappropriate, especially coming from one of 30 team owners in a sports league more than 75 percent of whose athletes are black.
Here you had all the ingredients for that sociological cocktail I call a Tom Wolfe, an intoxicating and flammable mix of race, sex, politics, generational conflict, professional athletics, and high finance. It did not disappoint. Condemnation of Sterling was swift, overwhelming, emphatic, vehement, and merciless. Magic Johnson was outraged. LeBron James was outraged. President Obama, traveling in Asia, was also outraged, criticizing Sterling with a speed, directness, and passion for which he is not otherwise known.
The media went wild. Nuance, complexity, and subtlety not only were missing from the coverage, they were held in contempt. That the recordings may have been obtained illegally was not an issue. That their release blurred an already thinning distinction between the private and public spheres of life was not an issue. The issue was Sterling’s racism, and his racism alone. The most pressing public question confronting America in the closing days of April 2014 was how, exactly, Sterling was to be punished.
It was left to Adam Silver, the newly installed NBA commissioner, to decide his fate. A lawyer who has worked in the upper levels of the NBA for more than 20 years, Silver appears to be the consummate functionary, a member of that well-compensated managerial class of Baby Boomers—he makes $10 million a year—who keep the gears of our increasingly rusty and creaky society moving. Silver announced his ruling in the matter of Donald Sterling in a highly publicized press conference on April 29. He did not leave any room for confusion.
Silver fined Sterling $2.5 million, banned him from attending games and from visiting practices, and barred him from making any decisions regarding the team he has owned for more than 30 years. But he may not own it for much longer: Silver said he would ask the NBA owners to invoke the clause in the league charter by which an owner can be forced to sell his team. The Clippers are valued at around $575 million. Oprah is an interested buyer.
Having reveled in the details of the scandal up to this point—in Sterling’s depravity, in Stiviano’s duplicity, in the preening and self-righteousness with which media personalities, Hollywood celebrities, professional athletes, and public officials anathematized Sterling—I found myself somewhat disturbed with the coverage of the press conference. It was not Silver’s judgment that left me uncomfortable—he could have announced a public flogging of Sterling for all I care—but the reaction to it. The response was gleeful, adulatory, and more than a little servile. The fury directed at Sterling transformed into worship of Silver. The flip side of public scolding, the news revealed, is not skeptical, fair-minded inquiry. It is the uncritical love of power.
Silver, wrote USA Today’s Christine Brennan, is “the new American hero.” His ruling “was perfect,” she went on, in a column that asked, “Isn’t it wonderful to see a 21st-century commissioner throw the book at someone who deserves it?” It was a “historic, riveting decision,” said Mike Allen in his Politico Playbook. Jason Hirschhorn, a former tech executive who writes a popular email newsletter, wrote, “putting our support behind ADAM SILVER for KING OF THE SEVEN KINGDOMS when he’s done with the NBA. That’s how you lead. Bravo!” Silver “not only did the league proud,” editorialized the San Francisco Chronicle, “but he also set the standard for how all of us should stand up to bigotry.”
A writer for the website Grantland noted that Silver had introduced a hint of complexity into his remarks when he mentioned that the legality of the Sterling recordings was, in a word, unclear. But the writer was not cheering Silver for his legal acumen; he was cheering Silver for dismissing it: “We don’t care about the origin. The guy is a doddering caveman, and we are excising him from the league. It was a satisfying moment.”
Silver was lauded for his courage, for his leadership, even though his decision required absolutely zero courage and did nothing but follow the crowd. New York Times columnist Timothy Egan discovered a new appreciation for capital punishment: “In issuing the sports equivalent of the death penalty—lifetime ban, probable forced sale of his franchise—to the basketball owner Donald Sterling, the NBA showed every other institution that courage is more commendable than dithering.”
The meaning of courage in these sentences is unique. Ernest Hemingway defined courage as coolness under pressure, which I suppose is an apt description of Silver’s demeanor at the lectern. But that does not seem to me to be what Silver’s fans are getting at. They take courage to mean boldness, making an unpopular stand on behalf of the oppressed, deciding on a course of action without regard to popularity. Silver did nothing of the sort. His league, which had done zilch in response to earlier instances of Sterling’s racial animus, was facing universal criticism, public shame, economic boycott, a potential strike, and the prospect of delegitimization. The fury had reached such a fevered pitch that only the toughest possible judgment would appease the crowd. What else was Silver to do? Say he had refused to give in to the critics, had suggested a lesser penalty despite knowing that there would be costs to the league? Such a decision would have counted as courageous—wrong, stupid, but also taking guts.
Leadership, too, seems to have lost its original meaning. A leader, in my view, is someone who chooses a course of action in the face of long odds and works, diligently, tirelessly, and deliberately, to turn his policy into reality. Nowadays we use the word “leadership” to praise the strong for enforcing the dictates of the politically correct.
Maureen Dowd, in a column addressed to President Obama, told the most powerful man in the world, “You should take a lesson from Adam Silver” because the “nerdy technocrat,” in “his first big encounter with a crazed tyrant,” made “the gutsy move of banning cretinous Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life.” Jena McGregor of the Washington Post’s “On Leadership” blog became lyrical when describing Silver: “He stood there tall and thin, a bald man with a quiet intensity, choosing his few words carefully and speaking them forcefully.” Oliver Brown of the Telegraph, invoking Benjamin Disraeli, concluded: “Adam Silver has measured up well to the virility test.”
“It was real leadership,” consultant Doug Sosnik told Ron Fournier of National Journal, in what has to be my favorite entry in the catalogue of Adam Silver tongue-baths. Sosnik was complimenting the leadership skills of one of his clients; he was cheering Silver for taking his paid advice. And Sosnik was doing this in an interview with his friend Fournier, with whom he (and former Bush adviser Matthew Dowd) co-wrote a book in 2006. The Fournier column, then, is a triple self-advertisement, a free commercial for Sosnik’s business, Sosnik’s book, and Sosnik’s client. Impressive!
When the controversy faded, and the media moved on to the next outrage, we learned that Adam Silver had been leading from behind. The New York Times reported that it had been Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, not Silver, who had orchestrated the harsh response to the Sterling tapes. Initially Silver had thought that a $1 million fine and a suspension was an appropriate punishment, but Johnson, a former NBA player himself who was acting as an agent for the player’s union, disagreed. “As the weekend progressed,” the Times reported, “Johnson spoke with Silver several times, delivering the message that only decisive action that left Sterling no room to remain actively involved with the Clippers would satisfy the union.”
Silver caved. Add the NBA commissioner to the list of media heroes later revealed to be cowardly, venal, calculating, and self-interested, courageous leaders unmasked as petty servants of the media wolf pack. Makes for a good story, I think—almost as good a story as the comeuppance of Donald Sterling.