Stay Young, My Friends.
Recently between speaking engagements, I found myself with way too many hours to kill at the airport before my flight. Instead of pulling up to the counter and indulging in a few adult beverages, I decided to walk the terminals, do some people watching, and listen to ESPN’s 30 for 30 podcast series on the Sterling Affairs.
The Sterling Affairs chronicled the very public and shocking removal of Donald Sterling as the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers NBA franchise in 2014. You can listen for yourself here (I highly recommend it), but for those who don’t have hours in an airport or don’t follow sports stories, here’s your Cliff Notes version:
- Donald Sterling was a very powerful billionaire in Los Angeles and had bought the Clippers in the early 80’s.
- Oh, Donald Sterling is also a huge racist. Huge. This will be important to the story….
- In the midst of an affair with another woman, he got caught on an audio tape saying very racist, hurtful things and those tapes were leaked to the public in 2014.
There’s more to the story, but the basics paint an awful picture for man with so much power and influence in the NBA. And almost immediately, the impact of the audio tapes was thrust upon the brand-new NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. Mr. Silver had been on the job for 3 months and now he had an owner of an NBA franchise making racist comments on tape.
In the days following the tape’s release, everyone in sports media and the NBA players themselves were expecting some type of suspension. But the prevailing thought was the punishment would not justify the severity of Donald Sterling’s comments. After all, Sterling was an owner. He had money. He had power. And Adam Silver actually worked for the ownership group of the NBA. Everyone thought Sterling would get a light flick on the wrist and we’d move on our way.
But instead of a suspension, Adam Silver threw the world and Donald Sterling a curveball. There was indeed a suspension, but Silver handed Sterling a lifetime ban. For life! Sterling was no longer allowed to associate with the Clippers organization or attend an NBA game. Silver also fined Sterling $2.5 million – the most allowed under the NBA constitution.
When asked why he chose to ban Sterling for life, Silver said he,
“believed (Sterling) crossed the line that broke the essence of the contract, of the moral fibers of (the) league. The values that had been part of this league from its earliest days. And I didn’t think it could be repaired.”
As an NBA fan, I remember these tapes and this day vividly. I was shocked, yet happily surprised the punishment went as far as it did. There is no place in our world for racism.
However, the interesting and impactful reminder the Sterling Affairs podcast gives us is when Adam Silver was interviewed 5 years later and recalled his decision-making in the moment. He said,
“I will say there was an advantage in my new-ness to the job. In that, it all happened so quickly, I didn’t spend a lot of time putting my actions into a broader context of sports leagues or society because I had an immediate issue that required an immediate decision.”
Too often, we’re caught up in all the factors associated with a decision – our past experiences, the unsaid or stated business rules, or fear of repercussion if we make the wrong choice. I’m sure Adam Silver had those thoughts running in his head. In fact I know he did because he later said he wasn’t even sure if he could legally ban an owner from the league!
Adam Silver’s courage to do what was right and necessary can serve as a reminder to stay young in our decision-making. Don’t fear the “what if.” I guarantee you weren’t worried about your professional brand as a 24-year-old. Be willing to take notice of the situation and be more decisive when necessary.
(Oh, and don’t be a racist. That’s another takeaway from the story)
Until next time!