Bernucca: Silver vs. Sterling Not About Black or White, but Green

Donald SterlingNBA commissioner Adam Silver cannot just suspend Clippers owner Donald Sterling for the rest of the playoffs.

Silver cannot just suspend Sterling for a year and drop a seven-figure fine on him the way his predecessor did to Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor in 2000.

Taylor broke the rules. Sterling broke the game.

Silver has no choice but to suspend Sterling indefinitely, as in until he sells his team.

And when Silver suspends Sterling, it is important that anyone and everyone with an opinion on Sterling’s trascendent arrogance, hatred and idiocy understand that the commissioner’s decision is not about a white owner or black players or a brown girlfriend.

It is about green money.

Sure, an indefinite suspension will end a lot of the current conversations swirling around Sterling’s rampant racism. It will show that the new commissioner – whose hesitancy, indecision and unnecessary tact was on full display during his news conference Saturday in Memphis – can bring down the hammer of his position quickly and forcefully. It will show that Silver understands the most basic tenet of any pro sports league – that there is no league without the players. It will show that Silver values the importance of the NBA remaining at the progressive political and social forefront worldwide.

But what it will show most of all is that Silver has not forgotten his primary purpose in his previous role: Making sure NBA owners maintain the upper hand in collective bargaining.

As David Stern’s deputy, Silver took the lead in the most recent labor negotiations. With the help of union infighting, he secured a windfall for virtually all NBA owners, who it should be noted pay the commissioner’s eight-figure salary. They got a much bigger slice of the BRI pie, shorter player contracts, a cost-controlling supertax and revenue sharing, all while minimizing the negative backlash that lingered long after the last lockout in 1999.

And since taking over for Stern three months ago, Silver has been doing nothing but winning. He has said that Image.AdamSilvereverything is on the table for discussion, distancing himself from his more staid mentor. Gullible fans are believing billionaire owners’ claims that exceeding the tax threshold is untenable, which indirectly (and incorrectly) casts a shadow of greed on the players. He smartly advanced the idea of raising the age limit from 19 to 20 under the popularity umbrella of the NCAA Tournament.

(RELATED: Raising the Age Limit to 20 is a Bad Idea, And Somebody Needs to Say So).

All of this has taken place while the Players Association is in complete disarray. The union has been without an executive director since Billy Hunter was terminated over a year ago for an alleged sustained money grab. Its opaque search has been interminably long and has not produced a visible, viable candidate. And the lack of leadership has allowed Silver to advance ownership arguments without public rebuttal.

Until now.

If Silver does anything less than suspend Sterling indefinitely – with the tacit long-term goal of forcing him to sell his team to someone not living in the 1800s – he will immediately and permanently hand the hammer of labor negotiations to the players, no matter how fractious their group may appear.

And in all likelihood, Silver will have to do this without any public support from NBA owners. It is not an accident MJ-jerseythat the only owners who made immediate public statements in response to Sterling’s stupidity are Michael Jordan of the Bobcats, who is black, and Vivek Ranadive of the Kings, who is Indian.

Indiana’s Herb Simon and others have since followed, but the silence of a majority of the remaining owners has been deafening. And while they are all white, it has more to do with black, as in what the pot calls the kettle.

It’s hard to hang one of your billionaire brothers out to dry when you have given millions to anti-gay activist groups, or participated in inherently dangerous fracking, or had a hand in bringing the economy to its knees, as colleague Dave D’Alessandro beautifully illustrates in this piece.

And the longer they keep their silence, the sooner it will become evident to even the most stubborn advocate of management that the only thing owners care about is money – how to keep it, how to get more of it and how to use it to keep it and get more of it.

Not black. Not white. Not brown.


So Silver is on his own in maintaining and restoring the current and future bargaining leverage of the owners. And while the specter of potential labor discord is more than three years away, every day that Sterling remains an owner simply strengthens the position of the players, who for a change have become the sympathetic figures in the NBA’s labor-management argument.

What can the players do right now? Outside of vocal and visual statements, not much. They could try to put pressure on companies who line the pockets of Sterling and other NBA owners with sponsorship revenue, although some of those companies are already bailing on the Clippers without any prodding.

This summer, draft picks and free agents can publicly declare that they will never sign with the Clippers as long as Sterling is owner. Among current Clippers, there are five – Danny Granger, Hedo Turkoglu, Darren Collison, Willie Green and Ryan Hollins.

A boycott could force superstars Chris Paul and Blake Griffin to demand trades, which would return the Clippers to their customary state of irrelevancy. And with the Lakers looking at a possible extended stretch of mediocrity, the NBA’s second-biggest market will become a basketball desert. Think that might get the attention of other owners?

And in 2017, when as sure as sugar either the owners or players will opt out of the current CBA, the union can turn ChrisPaulSH1Sterling’s presence – should it still exist – into a non-starter for every issue, no matter how big or small.

You want to discuss a change in BRI redistribution? Remove that certified racist from your Board of Governors.

You want to talk about enhanced testing for PED? Remove that certified racist from your Board of Governors.

You want us to wear sleeved jerseys with sponsor logos? Remove that bleeping certified racist from your Board of Governors.

The players are in an ideal position to invoke a permanent state of intransigence on every leaguewide issue. Even without an executive director, the union’s current leader is Paul, the NBPA president who could not be closer to the situation. The playoffs provide maximum exposure for their public stance. Business is booming, with reports that the salary cap could increase by as much as $5 million per team this summer. And the social tenor of this country is continued growth of acceptance and increasing intolerance of discrimination of any form.

The players have the hammer now.

And if Silver wants it back, he has to bring it down on Sterling.



Chris Bernucca is the managing editor of His column appears every Monday during the season. You can follow him on Twitter.


  1. Carl Dispoto says

    Awesome piece Chris, but won’t Sterling get $750 million for the team? That’s not punishment. They should make him transfer the ownership to his “estranged” wife with no money changing hands.

    • Chris says


      Good to hear from you. Hope things are well. I don’t know that there’s a solution that deprives Sterling from cashing in on the sale of his team. He is the owner and would be protected as such in any legal proceeding. Transferring ownership to his wife would create a Frank McCourt situation. I think Silver will suspend him indefinitely and have other owners urge him to sell the team, and I think his wife would be the last person he would want to sell to. What I have learned about him in the last couple of days is that he (a) is very litigious; some described his as “loving being in court” and (b) he doesn;t sell much of what he owns; he only buys. So this could get real ugly and drawn out. Thanks for reading. CB

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