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Banning Sterling Was Good. A Black NBA Commissioner Would Be Much Better.

The NBA's bigger race problem

Alex Trautwig/Getty Images

Don’t get me wrong: I like a good lifetime-ban-of-a-racist-NBA-owner as much as the next guy. Given the opportunity, I would have personally administered the suspension to Donald Sterling, the despicable not-for-long-owner of the Los Angeles Clippers. And yet I’m having trouble seeing how NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s punishment of Sterling qualifies him for the hero worship so many are showering on him.   

For one thing, as my colleague Marc Tracy wrote two days before Silver meted out justice, there’s just no way an overwhelmingly black, player-centric league can tolerate a racist owner. (I’d argue that it couldn’t tolerate a racist owner even if the players were all white, but that’s another story.) Silver should be commended for acting quickly and emphatically. But, when it comes to the decision rather than the manner in which he made it, he really had no choice.

More importantly, though, I don’t see how Silver and the NBA have remotely solved their race problem. If anything, the Sterling episode has only highlighted a deeper outrage: that the NBA is a majority-black league which no African-American has a plausible shot of governing. 

As Marc points out, the real lesson of the past few days is that the commissioner isn’t quite the autocrat he appeared to be during the heavy-handed, 30-year reign of Silver’s predecessor, David Stern. With the NBA increasingly dependent on its stars to satisfy its spiraling revenue ambitions, the commissioner must achieve a measure of legitimacy in the eyes of the players. The league may be far from a democracy—the commissioner and the owners still have enormous power. But it can’t function without a kind of implicit consent of the governed. Even Stern—who at the height of his powers got away with such diktats as imposing an out-of-uniform dress code—discovered the limits of his authority in recent years, with players personally deciding when and who they would be traded to (Carmelo Anthony), and who else would be on their teams (LeBron James).

Now here’s the problem: If the NBA is more democratic than was widely appreciated before the Sterling episode, isn’t Adam Silver’s very presence a bit strange? I’m not talking about the way he was single-handedly anointed by his predecessor. (Though there is something creepily patrilineal about that. Stern worked at the same law firm as Silver’s father in the 1970s, which is how the young Adam Silver first got connected with his future patron.)

I’m not even talking about how there’s a white commissioner presiding over a league in which 76 percent of the players are black. White mayors have recently run majority-black cities—say, New Orleans or Baltimore—and there’s no principled argument for deeming that fishy.

I’m talking about the fact that, given how the job of sports-league commissioner is essentially a lifetime appointment these days, the NBA is almost certain to go at least 15 to 20 more years without a black leader. (Silver took over earlier this year at the age of 51.) Which means that, if you were a player getting into the game around the time David Stern took over in 1984, you would spend your entire adult life with a league run by a white man.

And just as it would be ludicrous to suggest that an overwhelmingly black league has to have a black commissioner, it seems equally ludicrous to suggest that the league should never have a black commissioner. Especially since policing player behavior is one of the commissioner’s key responsibilities, and since this policing has serious racial overtones. (Silver and Stern have both said the point of being such hard-asses—everything from stiff suspensions to the dress code—was dispelling the notion that “all those N.B.A. players are thugs.'”) But if you’re Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan or Isiah Thomas—men who started their careers not so long ago—that’s essentially what we’re saying: no black commissioner for you.  

Granted, I don’t expect the NBA to aspire to the same sort of democratic legitimacy as a major U.S. city. (Though given the state of racial politics in the south, the NBA is arguably about as democratic today as New Orleans was back in the 1970s, and a lot of people thought it was outrageous that the city hadn’t had a black mayor by then.) What I do think is necessary is that one of two things change: Either Silver and the league essentially commit to finding an African American commissioner to replace him when he steps down in, er, 2034. Or, more plausibly, that Silver magnanimously step aside after six or eight years, George Washington-style, to symbolically bury lifetime tenure. But lifetime tenure for white guys—worse, white guys handpicked by their white-guy predecessors—seems deeply noxious to me.

Fortunately, Silver is in a position to satisfy both conditions. After he took over as commissioner in January, Silver tapped an NBA official named Mark Tatum to be his deputy. The good news is that Tatum is African-American—in fact, the appointment made Tatum the highest-ranking black official in any major American sport. The bad news is that Tatum is in his mid-40s, meaning he’ll probably be too old to succeed his boss if Silver sticks around for the standard multi-decade tour. If, on the other hand, Silver bows out within a decade, Tatum would be a logical choice to succeed him.

The ball’s in your court, Mr. Commissioner. And, unlike the Sterling decision, this one actually requires some courage.

Noam Scheiber is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow @noamscheiber