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Hayes: Exploring the boundaries of the NBA’s Sterling decision

Bob Hayes, Columnist

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On Tuesday, NBA commissioner Adam Silver announced in a press conference that Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling will be banned for life from the NBA, fined the maximum $2.5 million and forced to sell the franchise, pending a vote from the 29 other NBA owners. The punishment came after TMZ and Deadspin released recordings of Sterling privately making racist comments to his girlfriend.

The NBA’s handling of the controversy is monumental in the league’s ability to act quickly while enforcing a succinct and deservedly drastic punishment, especially considering Silver is just two months into his tenure as commissioner. Silver and the NBA deserve the utmost respect for their reaction to such a nasty turn of events, but we need to be careful when expressing the significance of this decision.

A number of athletes and fans expressed their gratitude to the NBA and its decision to force Sterling out of the league. Many times throughout the Clippers’ playoff matchup with the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday, commentators and fans on social media praised the NBA for setting an example for society that racism will not be tolerated.

Obviously kicking a man out of the league and fining him $2.5 million shows intolerance for racism, but in reality, the NBA has looked the other way throughout Sterling’s decades of horrible racism, including settling the largest housing discrimination lawsuit of its kind in American history. While we are all grateful for the NBA finally banishing a man who has no place in the league, we must understand that Sterling’s racism was in fact tolerated for most of his 33 years as Clippers owner. As much as we laud the NBA for an exemplary striking down of racism, the league may actually be behind the curve on American racial issues by waiting so long to ban Sterling.

On a different level, the NBA’s forcing Sterling to sell could have dangerous implications for the future of the league. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban called a forced sale a “very, very slippery slope.” The decision — which looks inevitable based on statements made by owners around the league — sets a precedent that an owner can be forced out of the league via the vote of other owners. This sounds like a scary proposition, but given that this is an extreme and unprecedented scenario, it is safe to trust that the NBA will not abuse this precedent.

Finally, the least important but most annoying effect of the Sterling fallout has been the media narrative surrounding the Clippers-Warriors series. On Sunday, in the first game following the release of Sterling’s comments, the Warriors destroyed the Clippers in Oakland. Following the game, media all across the country looked at the result and pointed to Sterling’s comments as a key reason for the loss. An ESPN SportsNation poll asked, “How much do you think the Donald Sterling situation hurt the Clippers in their 118-97 loss at the Warriors in Game 4?” As many as 59 percent of fans answered “a lot,” while 30 percent answered “a little” as opposed to the 11 percent answering “not at all.”

Narratives make sports exciting. They tell a story and give the games significance. While this story certainly has implications beyond basketball, we must be careful when using it to explain what happens on the court. Sterling’s nasty racism did nothing to propel Warriors star Stephen Curry — whom some analysts are already calling the best shooter in NBA history — and his seven three-pointers or account for the difference in the Warriors’ 66 percent effective field-goal percentage versus the Clippers’ 49 percent. As much as the media wants to tell you the story that the NBA’s Sterling punishment gave the Clippers the subsequent lift to a 113-103 win on Tuesday night, the reality is that both teams were merely playing basketball.

Despite all the noise surrounding players’ and coaches’ lives, once they step onto the court, they play basketball – just like they do all year. They try just as hard, hit just as many of their shots and call the same plays they normally do.

I don’t say this to take the air out of the story and its effect on basketball; in fact, the ability to forget the outside world and simply play is what makes sports so amazing. Now that Sterling is gone and we have examined the extent of the decision’s meaning, we can all move on and watch some of the most entertaining basketball in the history of the sport.

Bob Hayes is a Weinberg freshman. He can be reached at roberthayes2017@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com.

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