The NBA's bigger race problem
BY NOAM SCHEIBER @noamscheiber Share
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. ...
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. ...
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.
Detroit has a white mayor now, too, after 40 years of black mayors. How enthusiastic do you think NBA owners are about following the trajectory of New Orleans, Baltimore, and Detroit?
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.)
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.
How has Michael Jordan been working out as front office genius?
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.)
How'd that whole black (actually, Creole of Color) mayor thing work out for New Orleans, anyway?
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.
I've found the perfect candidate for future commissioner of the NBA: a black professional basketball player with whom the owners will feel culturally comfortable: Jordan Farmar.