Adam Silver took the hard line on Donald Sterling, which means everyone else gets off easy.
He banished Sterling to the point of NBA irrelevance and simultaneously put every other owner on notice. Not only is it up to them to vote Sterling out, but they're also now aware that anything they say, even in private, can and will be held against them.
In the process, Silver let everyone off the hook for this episode. Deep inside, that's what everyone wanted, as much as or even more than punishment for Sterling. The other owners won't have to explain why they kept him in their midst -- or, in some cases, why Sterling had a better record of hiring African-American head coaches and executives than they did. The Clippers players don't have to explain why they're still playing for him ... or why they ever signed on to do so in the first place. Fans won't have to rationalize subsidizing Sterling by paying for tickets.
The fairest of all questions -- even for the small corners of society that want to defend Sterling -- is why now? Why this moment, when many people were offended but no one was actually wronged? Why not when Sterling was facing sexual harassment lawsuits or housing-discrimination lawsuits or wrongful-termination lawsuits?
Silver has maintained: "I can't speak to past actions." He also said that because Sterling either won or settled lawsuits without admitting liability, the NBA didn't have grounds to act. That falls short on two grounds: Silver has worked in the NBA office since 1992 with ample opportunity for input; testimony and depositions should carry as much weight as recorded conversations, even without legal verdicts.
But as of Tuesday, Silver no longer has to account for the inaction by predecessor David Stern and the club of NBA owners in the past. He took bold strides down his own path, showed an unwillingness to allow the sore of Sterling to fester. It's a new era. It makes you wonder how much credibility Silver just bought and how this will play out in the next round of collective bargaining. For example, will players be more apt to acquiesce to Silver's desire to raise the minimum age for entry into the league?
The players wanted to see whether the NBA had their collective backs. Silver can look them in the eye and say he did everything he could to show that a league that's populated by an African-American majority won't tolerate an owner who disparages people based on the color of their skin.
Not only is Silver willing to take a stand, he's also willing to take up a fight. For years there was a desire within the league to oust Sterling for financial and competitive reasons. His team played in the outdated Los Angeles Sports Arena before small crowds while a newer arena and untapped fan base were available just down the highway in Anaheim. Then the Clippers squeezed into the giant ATM that is Staples Center and eventually turned into a highly profitable, destination franchise that has even fared better than the league's glamour team, the Lakers, the past two seasons.
There still were the embarrassing episodes, some of which came from Sterling's own testimony. During one deposition, filled with salacious details of Sterling recounting his encounters with a woman whom he paid to have sex, Sterling said something that seems to encompass his philosophy: "And when you are paying for it, you feel you have a right to say everything."
That would account for Sterling's degradation of women -- so evident in the way he speaks to the woman on the recording that led to his downfall -- and his attitude about players and other subordinates, at the very least as detailed in the wrongful-termination lawsuit brought by former general manager Elgin Baylor. At no previous point did the fans call for player boycotts, nor did other owners fill media email inboxes with statements of outrage over Sterling's comments, nor did coaches question whether they wanted to continue to work for him.
Mavericks owner Mark Cuban is absolutely right to express his concern about a slippery slope now that words can be grounds for revocation of a franchise. What happens when it's not so easy for everyone to jump up and point and yell, "Look at the racist!"? What happens if the discrimination is more subtle and nuanced?
What happens when we're forced to examine our own motives and willingness to sacrifice, when the solution isn't to get rid of someone else but to change our own behavior?
If Silver had not taken such a dramatic step, would you have protested by changing the TV channel in the midst of these incredible playoffs? Would you stop buying NBA jerseys? Would other owners commit to providing truly equal opportunity workplaces for their teams and other businesses?
Silver did the dirty work. It's up to everyone else to clean up after him.